30 May 2009

Chagas and Vinchuca

The other day I saw an item on CNN in the "Vital Signs" segment with Dr. Sanjay Gupta called "Diseases of Poverty". One of the diseases that they talked about was a disease that I mentioned in a recent post called "This will drive you buggy...". The disease is called "Mal de Chagas" or simply "Chagas" and it kills more people in Latin America than any other disease including Malaria. Literally millions of people are walking around with this disease and yet most people have never heard of it. If untreated they will die at an early age from a seriously diseased heart that is eaten away by a parasite. It reminds me of the evolution of the HIV-AIDS disease in that one minute we never heard of it and then suddenly it was all over the news. How can this be? Where did this "new" disease come from? Well, for one thing, Chagas is not a new disease. It has been around for thousands of years. How it became so prevalent all of a sudden is a rather long and sad story so bear with me while I start at the beginning.

Chagas (or Llagas, or Yagas as it is also called) began in some remote valleys of the Andes mountains in South America. It is caused by a parasite called "Trypanosoma cruzi" or "T. cruzi" for short. It first developed in Guinea pigs or "Cavy", as they are sometimes called, which are soft furry creatures that have nothing to do with pigs nor do they come from Guinea. In Spanish they are called "Conejos Indios" (Indian Rabbits) or "Cuy". Their Latin name is "Cavia porcellus". They are the domesticated form of a similar species that grew in the wild. The Guinea pig has played an important role in the folk culture of South American native mountain people, especially as a source of food but also in religious ceremonies. The Guinea pig originated as the "reservoir" for T. cruzi but there are other vertebrates besides Guinea pigs that serve as a reservoir for Chagas disease. These include Tuzos (gophers), ardillas (squirrels), ratones (mice), mapaches (raccoons), and especially tlacuaches (opossums, also called zarigüeyas). The "vector" or transmission device is an insect in the Family "Reduviidae", Sub Family "Triatominae" that is called by various names such as "Conenose Bug, Kissing Bug, Assassin bug, or Triatomine Bug. Most of the 130 or more species of this subfamily feed on the blood of vertebrates, especially mammals. The species that does the most damage to humans is "Triatoma infestans" which in Latin America is known as "Vinchuca" (veen-CHOO-kah). There is evidence exhibited by Incan mummies that this disease existed as early as four thousand years ago. It was contained locally for thousands of years and only began to spread with the advent of modern civilization. The common carrier was the development of the railroads in Latin America at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries. Yes, that's right. T. cruzi came to us by train.

In the past this disease has been prevalent only among the very poor. For those who hold credence in James Lovelock's "Gaia Hypothesis" it would seem to be one of the mechanisms whereby the Earth divests itself of poor people. However, we must not be so heartless and arrogant to think that way because with Globalization this disease is starting to affect everyone, rich and poor alike. Why? Because nowadays T. cruzi is also being passed along by blood transfusions and organ donations. Mothers can also pass T. cruzi on to their children as the parasite travels through the placenta and the birth canal. The normal transmission of T.cruzi to humans is by contamination through the Vinchuca's feces. These bugs get into poorly constructed dwellings and live in the mattresses or bedclothes or even cracks in the bedroom wall or ceiling or floor. At night they come out and feast on the blood of their victims like mosquitoes do. They like to insert their proboscis in the facial area of their victims which is why they are called the "kissing" bug. They do this painlessly but do not insert the T.cruzi parasite while they are actually sucking blood. The parasite is in their feces and is deposited near the tiny wound that their proboscis makes. The anti-coagulant in the mucous of their proboscis makes the wound itch and when the victim involuntarily scratches the itch they automatically rub the feces into the wound and that is how the the victim is infected. The parasite circulates for a short while in the blood before it enters tissue and becomes encysted in a cyst. While it circulates in the blood it sometimes cause swelling in the facial area of the victim, especially at the nearest eye to the bite area. You can see a picture of this swelling below and also a picture of a pre-Columbian Inca figurine with a swollen eye.

What can be done about T.cruzi? Up until now very little has been done other than to try to educate people. The problem is that the very poor are practically defenseless against the Vinchucha and there is really no proven method to rid them of the T. cruzi parasite once they have it. The pharmaceutical companies have not done much to provide an effective treatment for the disease because they are predominantly market oriented and if your market is mainly poor people then it doesn't become a priority. Only when the disease spreads to people who can afford to pay for life saving medicine does the general market take an interest. What can we do personally about this situation? Well, there are several things that we can do. The first and foremost is awareness. We should let our friends and neighbors know about it, which is what I am trying to do here. I also intend to educate myself further on this disease and link up with others who may have a similar interest. There are about sixty workers at the company where I am employed that I intend to make aware of this situation. Beyond that I put the question to you. What do you think can we do to help?

Dr. Sanjay Gupta
"Diseases of Poverty"

Click on Picture to Enlarge

27 May 2009


Heaven, Heaven

I got shoes, you got shoes,

All God's children got shoes.

When I get to Heaven gonna put on my shoes,

Gonna walk all over God's Heaven, Heaven, Heaven

Everybody talkin' about Heaven ain't a going there,

Heaven, Heaven, Heaven.

Gonna shout all over God's Heaven.

(Old Negro Spiritual)

Well, I sure do look forward to Heaven...not quite yet, but when the time comes. I think I have already been there twice anyway so I have a pretty good idea of what it will be like. When I was twelve and thirteen years old I was blessed to go to a scout camp run by the Chicago Area Council of the Boy Scouts of America. Actually it was a Boy Scout Reservation called Owasippe located near Twin Lake, Michigan. The first year I spent two glorious weeks at Camp Dan Beard and the next year another wonderful two week period at Camp Blackhawk. We went to camp on a train from Chicago, hundreds of us at a time, and we got off the train in a big field near the camps. Each camp had a series of smaller camps around it where we slept in tents that were erected over wooden floors and during the day we could roll up the sides of the tents. We ate at a big mess hall and we swam in a lake. We learned all about paddling a canoe and shooting a bow and arrow and building a campfire and singing songs and there was never a dull moment. I never wanted to leave. For me those times at camp were some of the happiest times of my life. I wish that all children could have that opportunity.

I think we were very lucky boys to have a good Boy Scout organization with good leaders and helpers and sponsors. There were plenty of Moms and Dads involved and we gained much from the experience that they acquired in the Armed Forces during World War II and the Korean War. There was a lot of camaraderie and very little of the bickering and scandals and political correctness issues that you hear about today. My old scout troop was number one twenty three, the best company that ever came out of the land of the free. Our troop rallying cry was:

"Stand on your head, stand on your feet,
Troop one twenty three can't be beat.
We don't smoke and we don't chew
And we don't go with the gals that do!"

Well, what happened to scout camp? It's still there...sort of. Owasippe is only a shadow of its former self. It is the oldest scout camp in the United States and goes back to 1912. At one time it covered over 11,000 acres and hosted 10,000 Scouts each summer. It has now shrunk by two thirds and is likely to fade away entirely. I don't have to tell you why. You already know the story, lack of funds, indifference, apathy, insurance claims, child molesters, etcetera and so forth. When I went there it was a different time and for us lucky ones for a little while it was a different world. I just wish that all kids could have a glimpse of Heaven like I did before they have to lean into the harness. There are so many memories. We used to drink Kool-Aid served from two quart aluminum pitchers except we used to call it "bug juice". I remember when I got home and our family was at the dinner table and I said "Please pass the bug juice". I thought my Ma was going to faint and my Pa was going to swat me. I know that you are all going to think I am nuts but I still remember the camp songs and when I think about them I get all misty eyed. Camp Dan Beard's song went like this:

"Give a cheer for dear old Beard,
Shout 'til the rafters ring.
Stand and give a cheer once again,
Let every loyal Beard man sing, Hail Dan Beard!
Cheer for all the happy hours, cheer for the carefree days,
Cheer for every TROOP to camp
At the camp that took their hearts awaaaaayyyy."

Camp Blackhawk's song went like this:

"Qui qua guaddy, guaddy, guaddy, guaddy goshnick, oompah qui, oompah quo
Qui qua guaddy, guaddy, guaddy, guaddy goshnick, oompah qui, oompah quo
Oh dear old Blackhawk, how much we love you,
Oh dear old Blackhawk, how much we love you, love you, love you (fade away)."

Okay, I am better now. I just had to get this out.

25 May 2009

Creepy Crawlies...

And she said:

"I don't like spiders and snakes
And that ain't what it takes to love me,

You fool, you fooooooooollll.

I don't like spiders and
And that ain't what it takes to love me,

Like I wanna be loved by yooooooouuuu."

(From the song, "Spiders and Snakes" by Jim Stafford 1974)

In the last two posts I talked about bugs and since I am on a roll I thought that I would continue with things that scare us. My first experience with deadly things was when I first came to Mexico and lived in the state of Nuevo León near Monterrey. The shop where I worked was alive with rattlesnakes and they were always underfoot. You had to be careful where you walked. In a photo below you can see a six footer being skinned out after it was killed just outside my office door. I almost stepped on it. We also had coral snakes which were not quite so common but just as deadly. You can tell in the photo that it was a coral snake (without a head) and not a non-poisonous scarlet king snake because the red bands touched the yellow bands. We learned to tell them apart in the Boy Scouts with a little poem:

"Red to yellow kill a fellow. Red to black venom lack."

In the last nine years that I have been living in Irapuato in Central Mexico I have not see a snake of any kind. Hey that's okay with me!

Another "animalito" (little creature) that I learned to fear is the centipede that they call "Ciempiés" in Mexico which means "hundred feet". No, I didn't spell "ciempiés" wrong either. Normally a hundred feet would be "cien piés" with an "n" in "cien" and not an "m" but that is not how they spell "ciempiés" and who am I (or you) to argue? The first time I saw one, I grabbed my camera to take a photo but I only got one fuzzy shot before I was brushed aside by a group of men who started shouting and stomping on the little beastie with their heavy boots. Every man in the shop had to come over and stomp on the ciempiés or at least stomp on the wet spot that used to be the ciempiés. They were all agitated and visibly upset. I did not choose that opportunity to ask questions but later on I found out why there was so much commotion. All of these men had been raised in houses made of adobe. The adobe houses have beams called "vigas" that go across the ceiling spaced about two feet apart. On top of these vigas are placed bundles of "carrizo" which is a tall weed that resembles bamboo (slightly) and grows in drainage ditches. On top of the carrizo they place a sand and lime mixture that in the old days was mixed with the juice of the prickly pear cactus and this formed a cement with which they could seal the roof. The ciempiés liked to hide up in the carrizo in the rafters and sometimes at night they would fall on the people sleeping below. If they were startled they would dig their claws into the flesh of the victim and would not let go. This terrified the victims, especially children, and the victim usually ended up with a high fever from an infection caused by the claws. Sometimes people even died from this infection. In short, the ciempiés was a small child's biggest nightmare and when the children they grew up they never forgot it.

Now it is time to talks about the scorpion which in this part of Mexico we call "alacrán" which comes from the Arab word "al-ágrab". In some parts of Mexico they also use the Spanish word "escorpión". There are many different varieties of scorpions but several species in the genus Centruroides give the most trouble in the area of the country where I live. They all are about two to three inches long and they all look somewhat alike. There are two characteristics that help to identify scorpions that are particularly dangerous. They will have long, thin, delicate claws and in addition to their main stinger they will have a small auxiliary barb on the end of their tails. Their main food is cockroaches and their larvae and for this reason they are found inside houses as well as outdoors. They like places that are dark and humid. There are several things that you can do about scorpions. First, you can check to see if you have them. The best way to do this is with an ultraviolet blacklight. With this light they will show up very well in the dark. You can buy a blacklight flashlight for about twenty bucks. Another thing that you can do is keep your house free from roaches and other vermin. One of the best ways to do this is to clean the floors frequently and use chlorine bleach along with your regular soap in the wash water. This will kill all the little microscopic bugs that roaches feed on. No food chain...no roaches, no roaches...no scorpions. It is as simple as that. If you have a lot of roaches to deal with sprinkle borax powder where they walk. Borax is harmless to humans (I hope) and death on roaches. They lick it off of their feet. Most of those roach powders that people try to sell you are nothing more than borax powder with a secret agent (food coloring) added. It is up to you to find out whether the blue one or the pink one works better (just kidding).

There are also several things that you can do outside the house. You can eliminate places for scorpions to hide. You can also dust the area around your shrubs with diatomaceous earth. Diatomaceous earth is a very fine chalky powder that is made up of the skeletons of tiny, tiny organisms called diatoms. People use this powder in their swimming pool filters in conjunction with a fine mesh filter because the diatoms lock together in an amazing filtering job. Just ask your pool boy. With scorpions, the diatomaceous earth gets into their tracheal breathing tubes and dries them out. It is actually called a mechanical insecticide and the bonus is that cockroaches don't like it either. There is one other scorpion control method that I must tell you about. I lived for six years in desert east of Phoenix near the Superstition Mountains back in the early 70's before there were so many people. We had loads and loads of scorpions. Little by little I noticed that wherever people had pet cats there were no scorpions. So, I got a cat too and my scorpions gradually disappeared. I never saw the cat with a scorpion either. I have a theory that scorpions are allergic to cat dander just like some people are. If you have a scorpion problem and you aren't allergic to cats, a cat is definitely worth a try. Just don't tell your dog that I gave you the idea.

Now we are down to the nitty gritty...spiders. The biggest problem is with spiders of the genus Loxosceles, the Violin Spider or "Araña Violinista" (also called Recluse Spider) and the genus Latrodectus, the Black Widow Spider, or Araña Viuda Negra". Of the two I think that the Violin Spider is the most dangerous but neither of them are aggressive if left alone. Look for the "violin" on the back of the Violin Spider and the red "hourglass" on the belly for the Black Widow to identify them. The best way to avoid them is the same methods used for scorpions. Keep a clean, tight house, and never put your hands or fingers where you can't see what's there first. Mexico does not have any dangers that are worse than other places. They are just different. Learn a little bit about them and the precautions you can take and you will do just fine. Oh, yes, and when you go to Sams don't forget to pick up a three can pack of "Raid Max"... just in case.

23 May 2009

This will drive you buggy...

In my last post I talked about some bugs called "Myate Verde" and "Pinacate". I received feedback from my fellow blogger Gary Denness of "The Mexile" about about a bug called "Cara de Niño" (Face of a Child) and also from Gloria of "Viva la Vida" about a bug called "Niño de la Tierra" (Child of the Earth). Both of these names refer to the same bug which in English is called a "Jerusalem Cricket" (Stenopelmatus Fuscus). It is not really a cricket either even though it kind of resembles one as you can see in the pictures below. The head of this bug is what really spooks people because it is smooth and translucent and resembles the head of a baby human. There are so many legends about this creature that I won't even begin to relate them here and besides, many of them are quite sinister. The reality is that the Jerusalem Cricket is harmless little tyke although it will definitely bite you if you stick your finger in its face. They are active at night and eat mostly dead organic matter and live underground and out of sight most of the time.

I received some more interesting feedback from my friend Alfredo Medina of "Diario de Alfredo". He told me to watch out for a bug he calls "Pintos". I believe the bug that he is referring to is what is known locally where I live as "juansanchez" (one word with all lower case letters). It is a flat bug with red and black markings that swarms in May and June and is attracted to bright lights at night. It can also inflict a very painful bite (which is actually a stab wound) if it is threatened. This bug is a very serious menace because it is a vector carrier for a debilitating disease called "Chagas" which is an invasive parasite called "Trypanosoma cruzi" or "T. cruzi" for short. There is no known cure for Chagas and it is estimated that there are approximately eight million poor people in Mexico who have it. The parasite attacks the internal organs and especially the heart and victims die at a much earlier than normal age. I have no idea why the local people call them "juansanchez". Nobody that I talked to seems to know.

There are about 130 subspecies of this bug and they are members of Triatominae , a subfamily of Reduviidae, and in English they are known as Conenose bugs, Kissing bugs, Assassin bugs or Triatomines. About a dozen or so of the subspecies cause most of the trouble in Mexico and one of the worst of these is called "Triatominae Mexicana" and it is prevalent in the states of Guanajuato, San Luis Potosí, and Michoacán. The bugs get into poorly constructed dwellings and live in the mattresses or bedclothes or even cracks in the bedroom wall or ceiling or floor. At night they come out and feast on the blood of their victims like mosquitoes do. They like to insert their proboscis in the facial area of their victims which is why they are called the "kissing" bug. They do this painlessly so as not to wake their victim but do not insert the T. cruzi parasite while they are actually sucking blood. The parasite is in their feces and is deposited near the tiny wound that their proboscis makes. The anti-coagulant in the mucous of their proboscis makes the wound itch and when the victim involuntarily scratches the itch they automatically rub the feces into the wound and that is how the the victim is infected. These bugs hide during the day and come out at night to search for blood when the host is asleep and the air is cooler. Odors as well as heat guide these insects to the host. Carbon dioxide emanating from breathing, as well as ammonia and other human body odors attract their attention. During night the bugs are also initially attracted to houses by bright lights. There are other vertebrates that serve as a reservoir for Chagas disease. These include Tuzos (gophers), ardillas (squirrels), ratones (mice), mapaches (raccoons), and especially tlacuaches (opossums, also called zarigüeyas).

There is another bug that I heard of recently that one has to see to believe. There is a town in Yucatan called Téjuxpan, where they have a big black beetle called the Buffalo Clasp Beetle (Dynastes fibula). They take this beetle and they glue little ornaments to it and a little chain so that ladies can pin them to their clothes and the beetles crawl around on the ladies' clothing, being limited in their travel only by the length of the chain. They are quite docile and can live for up to a year if cared for properly. Normally they live out of sight on the forest floor and eat dead and rotting vegetable material. Perhaps one of the Merida bloggers can fill us in a little more about them. They go by the name of "Maquech" or "Makech". Weird, ain't it?

19 May 2009

Mayate Verde

My fellow blogger John Calypso of Viva Veracruz posted a story to his blog today about a child that he saw playing with a bug and this reminded me that it is the season for the green junebugs that are common to many parts of Mexico and the Southwestern United States. The proper name for this bug is the "Figeater Beetle" and its Latin name is "Cotinis mutabilis". You can see a photo below. In Mexico it is called "Mayate" (mah-YAH-teh) from the Náhuatl word "máyatl" which means "escarabajo alado" (winged beetle). However, in these changing times that we live in the word "mayate" has also come to be a pejorative for "homosexual" and also "very dark skinned" so if you use the word "mayate" to describe the bug you should also use the word "verde" (green) as in "Mayate Verde" and you will be fine. The Mayate Verde is a rather large beetle that does not bite but has sharp claws on its legs. They are about an inch long, three quarter inch in width, and a half inch high. The general color is a metallic iridescent green or as they say in Spanish "verde tornasolado". The beetles emerge during the rainy season when the Nopal Cactus begin to flower and fruit and this is when they mate.

Young boys take a "tuna", or fruit of the Nopal, and they hollow it out a bit and set it in a tree or bush. The beetles enter the tuna to feed and there they can be trapped. Then the boys take a thread and tie it to the thorax or to one of the legs of the beetle and it will fly around tethered to the thread like a little air plane. There is another use for them also that is even more fun. The boys toss the beetles into the hair of little girls. The beetles have some very fine combs on their legs which get trapped in the girls' hair and there they flap around making a very loud buzzing sound. This, of course, drives the little girls nuts and makes them scream. All of you guys who are reading this better wipe that smile off your face before your wife sees it or you will be in really big trouble.

There is another bug that the boys like to play with called the "Pinacate" (peen-ah-KAH-teh) or "Tumblebug" (Eleodes obscurus), also called the Stink Bug". Unfortunately the word "pinacate" has taken on the same meanings as "mayate" so be careful when using this word. When this bug is threatened it will lower its head and raise its hind end and can throw off an oily stinky scent that is hard to wash off. Sometimes the bug topples over and has to right itself and hence the name "Tumblebug" or sometimes "Circus Bug". As kids become more educated and sophisticated and electronically oriented there is less and less interest in playing with bugs but some still do and some always will so now you know a little bit about them too.

17 May 2009

El Mago Fresolín

On Saturday I became a godfather. No, I'm not talking about the kind of godfather who wears a snap-brim fedora hat and talks like Marlon Brando. I became a "Padrino" or "godfather" in the Catholic Church for a little Mexican boy named "Ian Krishna" at his "bautismo" (bau-TEES-moh) or "baptism". Now, as to how this little boy became to be named Ian Krishna is not a good story so I won't go there. I do have a good story to tell, however, so let's go there instead. After the church ceremony we had a party for little Ian and the party included a "mago" (MAH-goh) or "magician" named "Mago Fresolín". The word "fresa" (FRAY-suh) means "strawberry" and Irapuato is strawberry country. A "fresolín" (fray-soh-LEEN) is a milling cutter or engraving tool. Hence the name "Fresolín" is merely a play on words that sounds a bit magical. That's because it really is magical.

The magician's real name is Antonio García Sotomayor and he has been doing magic shows for events like birthday parties and baptisms for just about as long as anyone can remember. I do know that he has been doing it for at least twenty five years and he is now in his seventies. Many of the people who hire him for their child's party were little children themselves the first time they saw Fresolín. I have seen him many times myself over the years since I first came to Irapuato and I love this guy. His magic is old and corny and his equipment is the bare minimum and he carries it around on a bicycle in cardboard boxes and plastic bags. I don't know exactly how he does it but he can hold the attention of an audience both young and old better than anyone I have ever seen. Thousands of Irapuato children have never known any other magician in person. He really loves the kids and you can tell this by his infinite patience with them and they never give him trouble. He can get rid of a frown or wipe away tears with just a wave of his hand and a kind word. The man is a master at his art. On top of that he doesn't charge very much. For two hundred and fifty pesos he will entertain the kids for over an hour and the fee includes many little prizes that he hands out.

Mago Fresolín has a motto on his business card. It says " Las penas llegan solas pero las alegrías hay que buscarlas" or in other words, "Troubles come on their own but joys you have to look for". I am happy to have known Mago Fresolín and every time I see him it makes my day. It makes me wonder if it isn't true, the saying that goes "there are angels that walk among us".

12 May 2009

Motoring in Mexico

If by now any of my readers might assume that my favorite pastime is gathering information about Mexico they would be quite right. I am fascinated with this country and its people and especially its long and colorful history. Today I came across a booklet that I acquired some time ago and I thought I would share it with you. It is called "Motoring in Mexico" and it was printed by the Travel Division of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the Pan American Union in Washington, D.C. in 1958. It is a "compilation of information on highways and facilities for the motorist". In addition to information for the tourist entering Mexico it includes maps of the major trunk highways. It also lists the condition of the highways as either "paved" or "non-paved. Almost without exception these highways were only two lane. Alongside the highway maps there are a parallel maps showing the elevations. Some of the elevation changes are quite abrupt and for the roads and the cars of a half century ago some of these must have been quite startling. To illustrate what I am talking about I have included four maps below. Note, for example the elevation change between Tamazunchale, which the old folks nicknamed "Thomas & Charley" and Jacala. The road climbs 5000 feet in the span of just a few miles. I'll bet your ears would pop on that one. Click on the pictures to enlarge them.

10 May 2009

"Arriba los Técnicos"

Politics all over the world can be compared to Mexican "Lucha Libre" wrestling. You have the "técnicos", the good guys, versus the "rudos", the bad guys. "Técnico" (TEK-nee-koh) means technician. These are the wrestlers that use their technique and ability to win. "Rudo" (ROO-doh) literally means ruffian or villain. The "rudos" are the wrestlers who cheat in order to win. You have to choose your lot in life by being a técnico or a "rudo". Unfortunately, like Lucha Libre, the world of politics is so rough and tumble that many politicians who start out as "técnicos" end up becoming "rudos". It doesn't matter whether they are liberals or conservatives or what political party they belong to. Sooner or later in the minds of the people their actions and performance, whether real or perceived, will determine if they will be cheered or booed. There is a popular Mexican comic book superhero called "El Valiente" who is definitely a good guy in the same style as Superman, Batman, and Spiderman. His battle cry is "¡Arriba los técnicos y bajo los rudos!"..."Up with the good guys and down with the bad guys!".

Early in the last century, the Mexican revolutionary Francisco Madero popularized the slogan "Sufragio Efectivo, no Reelección" (effective suffrage, no reelection). This phrase was borrowed from Porfirio Diáz who abandoned it not long after initiating it. It means a fair vote count and no reelection to public office. This principle was written into the Mexican Constitution of 1917 and makes every presidential election in Mexico a non-incumbent election. That means that a president is elected for one six year term called a "sexenio" and cannot be elected president again. State governors are also elected for six year terms and cannot be reelected. Federal legislative power is vested upon the Congress of the Union, a two chamber legislature comprising the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies. Senators serve for six years and cannot be reelected for the next immediate term. Deputies serve for three years and cannot be reelected for the next immediate term. State legislators also cannot be reelected for the next immediate term nor can the presidents of the local municipal councils who are commonly called "alcaldes" or mayors. In short, nobody in government can serve consecutive terms. Therefore, holding a government office is generally a one shot deal.

Over the years there began to develop a pattern of corruption whereby people who were leaving public office would take as much advantage of the situation as they could before their term was up and they would leave the next guy with an empty treasury and a lot of bills to pay. This became so rampant that by the 1950's the practice received a nickname . It was called "El Año de Hidalgo". With three year term elections coming up soon you may hear someone refer to El Año de Hidalgo or you may see it referred to in the editorial section of your newspaper and so I thought I would write about it to give those who are unfamiliar with the term a little explanation of what it means. Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, the father of independent Mexico was born in Pénjamo, Guanajuato on May 8th 1753. However, his actual birth certificate was not found until 1951 in the old Pénjamo archives. This was during the administration of Mexican President Miguel Alemán. His administration would be marked by rampant political corruption and crony capitalism and this would shape the relationship of politics and big business in Mexico until recent times. Since the year 1953 marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of Miguel Hidalgo the government decided to strike a five peso silver coin to mark the occasion. They made one million copies of this coin which carried the likeness of Miguel Hidalgo and the dates 1753 and 1953 and the words "Año de Hidalgo" (see the picture below).

At the end of the administration of Miguel Alemán some wag or journalist coined the phrase:

Este es el año de Hidalgo, chin-chin el que deje algo.
This is the year of Hidalgo, shame on the guy who leaves something behind.

Actually there are several versions of the phrase, some of which go like this:

Ese último es el Año de Hidalgo: chingue a su madre el que deje algo.

El año de Hidalgo, chinga su madre el que deje algo.

Este es el año de Hidalgo…pendejo el que deje algo.

Año de Hidalgo, tizne a su madre el que deje algo.

These are all very vulgar phrases and for that reason I will not translate them literally but I think you get the message.

In short, the last year of a political term of office was generally characterized by a rise in corruption. In a "Year of Hidalgo" it always seemed like money would unaccountably disappear from the public treasury. The common people say that the politicians take two years to get comfortable in office, another two years to put a grand scheme in place, and the last two years to "hacer su agosto" (make their August) or in other words "harvest their ill gotten gains". There is a pervading notion in Mexico that altruism is equal to stupidity and so sadly, the people expect this kind of behavior. In the United States people might say "Shame on the man who cheated you" but in Mexico the people are more likely to say, "Shame on you for letting the man cheat you". Where does this cynicism come from? From over three hundred years of poverty and near slavery where survival was a matter of keeping your wits about you and taking advantage of every opportunity to survive. In Mexico for many, many years, one man's loss was an answer to another man's prayers. Finders keepers losers weepers and the "Ley de Herodus" were the laws of the land. In Mexico the area of politics has been a prisoner of the shadows of past practices. Now, however, thanks to the Fox administration and the Law of Transparency and the new Judicial reforms of the Calderón administration, Mexico is slowly leaving those shadows behind and basking in a new light. Nevertheless, old habits die hard and no doubt in the nooks and crannies of the halls of congress and in the state and local governments the seeds of corruption have not been entirely eliminated and are awaiting the new harvest of the "Año de Hidalgo".

Please join with me and "El Valiente" and the Técnicos everywhere, even unto Washington, Mexico City, Quebec City, Beijing, Moscow, London, Paris, Berlin, Warsaw, Rome, Madrid, Jerusalem, Tehran, Baghdad, Damascus, Islamabad, Kabul, New Delhi, Tokyo, Canberra, Johannesburg, Havana, Caracas, Bogotá, Santiago, Brasília, Nairobi, Cairo, Reykjavík, Amsterdam and all the communities of the world and make this our universal motto and our battle cry:

"Arriba los Técnicos"

07 May 2009

It's a dog's breakfast...

The title of this post is derived from a British slang phrase meaning "a mess or muddle"..."an unappealing mixture of many things"... a "hodgepodge". It comes from the idea that a hungry dog will eat anything and feeding it a mixture of whatever is on hand will do. Sometimes people really aren't much different in that regard. I remember when I was a kid I used to make some awful sandwiches out of things like mustard, pickles, and onions and my Ma would say to me in Polish, "Dobra świnia wszystko zje"... "A little pig will eat anything". The truth is that I like dogs and when I feed them it is because I want to help them and not hurt them. I would never feed them a breakfast of mustard, pickles, and onions. I do not have a dog of my own...too much responsibility. However, I do go around feeding dogs and I run through about ten pounds of dog food every week.

At the shop where I work we have a large dog run that contains two Rottweilers. They are a backup for our night watchman. When things go "bump" in the night he just leans over and unlatches the gate and lets the dogs out. We don't have much trouble these days but about seven or eight years ago nights could be very "interesting". It is just another sign that Mexico is getting better all the time. Other than being a bit bored these days the Rottweilers do okay. They are fed dry dog food supplied by my employer and occasional table scraps and butcher's bones given to them by the watchman and they are more or less fit. Let's just say that you wouldn't want to meet up with Coochyflies or Booger in the middle of the night. There are other dogs at the shop also but the number ebbs and flows. They show up one day all bedraggled and nothing but matted fur and skin and bones and you can count every rib. At first they act very fearful and they hang back ready to jump and run away. They are hungry. You can see the hollow look in their eyes. They look pitiful. I feed them. I can't help it. Perhaps I shouldn't but most of them don't live long anyway. They are either lost or abandoned and there are no shelters to receive them. It's not that they are breeding more dogs either. If these dogs have puppies the puppies usually die within days. For that reason I don't give any of them names unless they are true survivors. Most of them either die of some ailment or parasite or get hit by a car or truck or else some careless person runs over them with a forklift...or any number of things.

When I come to work in the morning the dogs know the sound of my car. By the time I reach the front gate they are all lined up with tails wagging and they escort me to my parking place. They walk so close to my car as I enter the gate that their tails hitting the car sides sound like Gene Krupa playing the drums. I throw them some dog food from a bag in my trunk and cast it out on the concrete like you would cast chicken feed to chickens. In this way they can't fight over it. If they want to eat they better get busy and eat and not fight. I know it isn't much but it tides them over until they can beg table scraps from the workmen at lunchtime. Weekends and holidays are the toughest for them. When I return to work on Mondays they are especially excited. I feel appreciated. Hey, these aren't dog show dogs. They are beggar dogs. Nevertheless they are my friends.

Now comes the sad part. Times are tough. The cost of dog food has doubled in just the past month. I have no idea why either. Several years ago we had a Price Mart in Irapuato. I could buy dog food in bulk for only four pesos per kilo at first and it gradually rose to about six pesos per kilo. It wasn't fancy stuff but the dogs seemed to like it. Then Price Mart went out of business and I had to look around for something else. To my surprise the dog food in the supermarkets had risen to about twelve pesos per kilo. I was paying up to 50 pesos for a four kilo bag which would last me about a week. I collected table scraps and bones from my friends and relatives to supplement this. Mostly I just bought whatever dog food was on sale. A few times I bought some four kilo bags of dog food at Comercial Mexicana that came from Argentina and they cost only twenty-eight pesos. The dogs really liked that stuff too. Lately, however, I have had to pay one hundred pesos for a four kilo bag and I am afraid that I am going to have to announce to the doggies that it is time that some of us may need to go on a diet.

I imagine this situation doesn't bode well for the canine world. Many people who have dogs just won't be able to afford them if this keeps up and there may be many more strays to feed. I suppose I could buy dog food in greater quantities but then where would I store it so that the mice and bugs couldn't get at it? I didn't want to keep that much in my car trunk. I decided that I would have to look around for some alternative source of dog food. Little did I know how difficult that would be. The Internet is absolutely useless for information about dog food. There is just too much information and most of it is either bogus or it is designed to play on your fears and rob you of your money. I found out the dog food is really big business. In North America people spend about sixteen billion dollars a year on dog and cat food alone. Most major pet food companies in the United States are subsidiaries of just a few gigantic multinational corporations:

Nestlé’s bought Purina to form Nestlé Purina Petcare Company
(Fancy Feast, Alpo, Friskies, Mighty Dog, Dog Chow, Cat Chow, Puppy Chow, Kitten Chow, Beneful, One, ProPlan, DeliCat, HiPro, Kit’n’Kaboodle, Tender Vittles, Purina Veterinary Diets).

Del Monte gobbled up Heinz
(MeowMix, Gravy Train, Kibbles ’n Bits, Wagwells, 9Lives, Cycle, Skippy, Nature’s Recipe, and pet treats Milk Bone, Pup-Peroni, Snausages, Pounce).

MasterFoods owns Mars, Inc., which consumed Royal Canin
(Pedigree, Waltham’s, Cesar, Sheba, Temptations, Goodlife Recipe, Sensible Choice, Excel).

Procter and Gamble (P&G) purchased The Iams Company
(Iams, Eukanuba).

Colgate-Palmolive bought Hill’s Science Diet
(Hill’s Science Diet, Prescription Diets, Nature’s Best).

Yup, there you have it folks. The same people who make your tooth paste and your pickles and your mustard, and your candy bars, etectera, make your dog food. Dog food is sold to the owners who buy it, not to the dogs who have to eat it. On the outside of the bags there are pictures of plump whole chicken, choice cuts of beef, fresh grains, vegetables and all the wholesome nutrition your dog will ever need (even though dogs have thrived on leftovers and scraps from their owners for thousands of years). How do we know that what is on the inside of the bag is the same thing that is pictured on the outside of the bag? Oh, if you are a trained chemist and nutritionist and mathematician you can always read the label. The rest of us however just have to believe that the pet food companies know what is right for the dogs and that they have the dogs' best interests in mind. Yeah...right!

So, where are we? We need to brace ourselves for the coming dog food crisis. I would like to make basic, inexpensive dog food just for dogs, not for people who have dogs. I would have a test lab and look for ingredients that are not expensive but taste good to the dogs and do no harm. Forget about dogs living long lives. They weren't meant for that. After all, dogs are dogs. They don't even realize that they are going to die someday. They only live for today. What's the difference if they live five years or ten as long as they are healthy and happy? We need to think more about what makes them happy and less about what we want. The "plump whole chickens, choice cuts of beef, fresh grains, vegetables and all the wholesome nutrition that we can muster" should go to the children of the world and not to the dogs. In the end dogs just want to be our friends. I think that a little attention like a pat on the head and a ball to chase is all that a dog really needs to be content. I wrote in "A Dog's Life" about a saying in in Mexico that if you are kind to dogs while you live they will be waiting for you when you die to help you cross to the other side. I really expect that my friends will be waiting for me. It will be great to see them all again. For those of you who have lost a beloved pet I feel your pain. Whenever I lose one of my little friends I feel very bad...but take heart, you will see them again someday. God will want you to be happy. It has been said that in Heaven your Mom and Dad will be young again and your dog will be able to talk. What do you imagine your little doggie will say to you? He or she will probably say, "Well, what took you so long? Where have you been? I have been waiting patiently right here just for you."

05 May 2009

Sobre las Olas (Over the Waves)

On the way from Irapuato to San Miguel de Allende and before we make the left turn toward Comonfort at Celaya, we pass by a town called Santa Cruz de Juventino Rosas or just "Juventino Rosas" for short. The town didn't always go by that name. Before 1939 it used to be called Santa Cruz de Galeana and before 1912 it was called Santa Cruz de Comontuoso. The reason that it eventually became Juventiono Rosas is because on January 25th of 1868 a remarkable child was born to Paula Cadenas y Jesús Rosas and the child's full name was José Juventino Policarpo Rosas Cadenas. The father, Jesús Rosas, was a musician and had been with the Mexican troops who fought against the imperial forces of Maximilian of Hapsburg, the one time "Emperor of Mexico". After the fighting was over he and his little family ended up in the Celaya area and settled at Santa Cruz de Comontuoso because it was known at the time as a place where craftsmen were making stringed instruments. It was there that Jesús Rosa tried to eke out a living but times were tough and the family ended up moving to Mexico City in 1875. Needless to say, however, that young Juventino Rosas was exposed to music at an early age and the first to notice it was his own father who also became his music teacher and taught Juventino to play the violin. In 1878 his father formed a trio out of Juventino and his brothers Manuel and Jesús they tried to make money by playing at fiestas and events in the local area. They didn't have much success, however, and had to look for a better way to earn their daily bread.

Eventually Juventino found work with a band and later along with his father and his brother Manuel he found work in an orchestra. Juventino advanced rapidly and after hearing Juventino play, a doctor by the name of Manuel M. Espejel introduced him to Dr. Alfredo Bablot who was the director of the National Conservatory of Music. He was admitted to the conservatory where he learned how to read and write music and also some musical theory. He drank it up like a sponge and learned as much as he could even though he wasn't there for long. He had so much self confidence that he wrote a waltz named "Carmen" and gave it as a gift to Doña Carmen Romero, the wife of Mexican President Porfirio Diaz and he directed the orchestra who played the waltz for the first time at the birthday celebration of President Díaz. He wrote his most famous waltz, "Sobre las Olas" (Over the Waves) after bathing in a stream where he got the idea for the music. This piece of music is famous the world over and is still played today. It is one of the greatest waltzes ever written and on par with music written by composers like Johann Strauss, Johannes Brahms, or Piotr Illich Tchaikovsky. It was first published in 1888 when Juventino was twenty years old. He sold the rights to the song to a firm called Wagner y Levien for only forty-five dollars. I have seen several references to an original publishing date in 1884 when Juventino Rosas was in New Orleans, Louisiana with the popular Mexican band at the New Orleans Universal Cotton Exposition and World's Fair (see my post "Kiosco Morisco") but I am not sure that this is not just an apocryphal tale because he would only have been sixteen at the time and he really didn't start composing until he was about seventeen.

Juventino Rosas was the first Mexican composer whose music gained international recognition. During the six or seven years that he composed he wrote ninety-two pieces of which fifty were published. He not only had the greatest number of editions published in foreign countries, and arrangements for an incredibly wide range of instruments, but he was also the Mexican with the greatest number of sound recordings of his works until the 1950s. At the age of twenty-six he became a member of a Spanish light opera company and on a trip to Cuba he contracted spinal myelitis and was interned in a tiny rural hospital called "La Casa de Salud Nuestra Señora del Rosario" in a little community called "El Fondeadero de Batabanó" (Anchorage of Batabanó). He died on the 9th of July, 1894. He was buried in Cuba where the epitaph over his grave read "Juventino Rosas violinista Mexicano y autor del célebre vals Sobre las Olas, falleció en julio de 1894. La tierra cubana sabrá conservar su sueño" (Juventino Rosas the Mexican violinist and author of the famous waltz Sobre las Olas, died July 1894. The land of Cuba will preserve in memory his dream.) In 1909 his body was brought back to Mexico with great fanfare and he was entombed in the Civil Cemetery of Dolores in Mexico City. In December 1939 his remains were exhumed to be reburied in the same cemetery in Mexico's Circle of Illustrious Men. He was one of those shooting stars that comes along every once in awhile and who makes everyone gasp in wonder and then disappears in a flash toward the vast horizon as quickly as they came. May the Lord have mercy on his soul and may he rest in peace.

Note: There were several unofficial lyrics written in Spanish for Sobre las Olas and one written in English in 1950 by Paul Francis Webster for use in the 1951 film The Great Caruso starring Mario Lanza as Caruso. The song was called "The Loveliest Night of the Year". Most people are familiar with the music even if they don't recognize the name. Parts of it are used quite a bit as background music for things like circus trapeze acts because it is very smooth and soothing.

The introduction is a bit slow and it takes about forty seconds to get to the part that most people are familiar with. Sit back and relax and let the waves wash over you.

An idea whose time has come...

Mexican people, like people everywhere, like to shake hands. It is an important social ritual. When my wife and I meet a family we know at the supermarket everyone has to shake hands, even the kids. After the first round of handshakes and abrazos (hugs) and besos (kisses on the cheek) we get down to business and inquire about everyone's health and how they are doing and how the kids are doing in school, etc. These are not quick meetings. They usually take about a half an hour while we are blocking a busy aisle of the store. Ni modo (it doesn't matter), these things are socially important. Despedidas (goodbyes) are also long drawn out affairs. We all begin the despedida by shaking hands and hugging again and then one of the women (usually) mentions something else and that takes another five minutes to sort out and discus and then we all shake hands again and one of the men will say, "We must get together soon" and that sparks another discussion about when and where. Finally we all shake hands again and wave good bye and drag ourselves away from one another. Needless to say, this does not bode well for avoiding person to person disease transmission. I have always wondered about that. How much disease is spread by people just being nice to each other?

Thanks to the leadership and courage of Barack and Michelle Obama and the "fist bump" we now have an option recommended by Dr. Sanjay Gupta called the "elbow bump". It makes a lot of sense. When two people meet they put their right arm in the position of a chicken wing and touch elbows. What a great idea! I have been doing that for several days now and it never fails to evoke a smile and a nervous giggle from my victims. There are some protocol details yet to be worked out but I am sure that won't be a problem except perhaps in the Catholic Church. It remains to be seen if Pope Benedict will go along with the elbow bump instead of the traditional handshake of the "Paz del Señor" (Peace of the Lord) during the mass. Then there is the business protocol. Instead of saying "Can we shake on that?" we will have to say something like "Can we bump on that?". Just think of all the possibilities and the next time that you see someone picking their nose or scratching their butt one minute and then reach out to shake someone else's hand the next, think about it some more.

02 May 2009

Kiosco Morisco - Moorish Kiosk - Mexican Alhambra

I am fortunate to have a very good friend in California by the name of Malcolm Lubliner. Malcolm is a professional photographer and a very good one. You can see his work at the Malcolm Lubliner Photography website which is called CityVisions. Believe it or not I met Malcolm through a man named George P. Thresher who has been dead for at least seventy five years. How could that be? Well, one day I was walking around the town of San Miguel de Allende here in Mexico and I stumbled into a photo gallery named appropriately "Gallería de Fotografía". There I walked up to a photo labeled "Queretaro Monument" and I recognized it as the spot where Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian of the Hapsburg lineage, and at the time the presumed "Emperor of Mexico", was executed. The photograph is fascinating in that the surrounding area has long since been overrun with the trappings of humanity and today does not look anything like the terrain in the photo which was taken by George Thresher. Mr. Thresher's photo was taken around the year 1900 approximately thirty to thirty-five years after Emperor Maximilian died on that very spot on June 19th, 1867. I asked the gallery people about the photo and they knew nothing about it. The suggested that I contact Mr. Lubliner who is the owner of the Thresher collection. I wrote to him that very day and thus began our friendship. He asked me if I could write some essays about George Thresher's photos and so far I have written three of them which you can find on his website. I invite you to take a look and see the complete collection of Thresher's Mexico photos and find out how Malcolm acquired them. Malcolm will also be happy to oblige you if you would like to obtain large format prints of the photos for your own collection.

Malcolm has been very generous with me and among other things he has given me a beautiful thirteen by nineteen inch print of the Maximilian Execution Site photo and also a print of a Thresher photo labeled "Lottery Building". The photos were enlarged and printed from the original glass plate negatives and the fine details are exquisite. I decided to tackle the "Lottery Building" photo as my next essay project. The pace at which I am researching the photos, however, will probably require another lifetime so I plan to do as many as I can and leave the rest to someone else. At this point I must stop calling the photo the "Lottery Building" and start calling it the "Kiosco Morisco" (Moorish Kiosk) which is what it is called today. Here is the Kiosco Morisco as it appears in the original Thresher photo:

This kiosk was designed by a prominent engineer named José Ramón Ibarrola as an exhibit for the New Orleans Universal Cotton Exposition and World's Fair which ran from December 16, 1884 to June 1, 1885. One of the features of the Kiosco Morisco is that it was made from cast iron pieces that could be taken apart and reassembled with relative ease making the kiosk portable and available for reuse at other locations. Many people think that the Moorish design was adopted because of the Moorish influence on Mexican architecture but in reality the theme was chosen because interest in the Middle East was very high at the time and the Moorish designs at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition just a few years earlier in 1876 had been well received. At the New Orleans fair the kiosk was called the Mexican Alhambra Palace because the style of architecture so closely resembled the style of the Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain. It was also sometimes referred to as the "Octagonal Building" because its walls were in the form of an octagon or eight sided figure. After the New Orleans Fair the kiosk was dismantled sent to Mexico City and erected on the south side of the Parque Alameda Central. There the Kiosco Morisco stood until 1910 when it was moved to make way for a semicircular memorial known as the Hemiciclo Juárez, which is dedicated to the former Mexican president, Benito Juárez. The Kiosco Morisco in turn was moved to The Alameda de Santa María la Ribera where it stands today. Around the turn of the century and before it was moved to its present location it was used as a platform to announce the winners of the Mexican National Lottery. No doubt it is for that reason Mr. Thresher labeled the photo "Lottery Building".

Although there was a small Mexican exhibit at the Philadelphia Centennial in 1876, Mexico's attendance at New Orleans constituted the first major effort to portray itself as a modern nation on the world stage. Some people claim that the Kiosco Morisco was used at the Exposición Internacional de París in1889 and the Louisiana Purchase Exposition World's Fair in St. Louis in 1904 but I can find no evidence of this. Mexico did participate in these fairs but the exhibits were larger and completely different. I believe that one of the reasons that people think the Kiosco Morisco was used again in Paris and St. Louis was that flattering promotional material from the New Orleans exhibition was used to create advance promotional material for future fairs. Mexico also participated in the Chicago exhibition of 1893 and the Buffalo exhibition of 1901 but for economic reasons it was on a much smaller scale.

Cast iron, the material used for the Kiosco Morisco, was a natural for that time. Cast iron was the metal of choice throughout the second half of the 19th century. Not only was it a fire resistant material but large structures could be produced with cast iron at less cost than other materials such as brick or stone and cast iron structures could be erected with speed and efficiency. Cast iron is also more resistant to corrosion than either wrought iron or steel and while molten, cast iron is easily poured into molds, making it possible to create nearly unlimited decorative and structural forms. For this reason it was particularly useful in creating the intricate design patterns on the Kiosco Morisco. Apparently José Ramón Ibarrola, the designer, was an acquaintance of Andrew Carnegie, the iron and steel magnate. The sections of the Kiosco Morisco were cast at the Union Mills Foundry of the Keystone Bridge Company which was one of Andrew Carnegie's companies. As a matter of fact both Mr. Carnegie and Señor Ibarrola received honorary degrees together in 1906 from the University of Pennsylvania.

At the New Orleans Exhibition the Kiosco Morisco (Mexican Alhambra) was situated near the southeast corner of the Main Building. Over the entrance to the Kiosco Morisco hung a prominent sign containing the Mexican national seal and the words, "Mexican Mining Pavilion", in gilded letters. Within the pavilion were large glass display-cases, arranged in two circles, in which were placed a multitude of rare minerals from each of Mexico's mineral States. The States having the finest displays were Sinaloa, Chihuahua, Zacatecas, Guanajuato and Hidalgo, whose immense resources in iron, copper, zinc and lead, as well as in the more precious metals of gold and silver, were well represented. Precious stones were also shown and in particular opals from the state of Queretaro. Beneath the dome, at the center of the pavilion, was a half a ton of silver displayed as a mountain, while collections of various tropical shrubs were placed beneath the colored-glass windows surrounding the building. A distinguished mining engineer and very accomplished individual by the name of Gilberto Crespo y Martínez was in charge of the displays in Mexican exhibit. In addition to the Kiosco Morisco (Mexican Alhambra), a wooden building was constructed to house both a Mexican martial band and a cavalry squadron. It was reported that the Kiosco Morisco (Mexican Alhambra) and the Mexican band were the most popular foreign attractions at the fair.

The Kiosco Morisco was declared a National Artistic Monument by the Mexican Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia en 1972 and underwent a complete restoration in 2003. It is located at the Alameda de Santa María la Ribera which is bounded by the streets Salvador Díaz Mirón, Dr. Atl, Manuel Carpio, and Torres Bodet, in the Colony of Santa María la Ribera. It is stunningly beautiful and well worth a visit.

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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.