Celebrating the Green Stuff

It’s Spinach Festival weekend in Crystal City, my hometown, which boasts two statues of Popeye and still calls itself the Spinach Capital of the World.

Yet, as far as I know, no Spinach is being shipped out of Crystal City. In the good old days, there were two canneries and a number of “plataformas,” packing sheds that shipped fresh spinach to all parts of the country via railroad.

They were owned by prominent farming families. The Wagners. The Carrs. The Byrds. The tallest building for miles and miles around was a concrete vault where blocks of ice, made at the “hielería” next door, were stored for the high season. The ice was crushed and sprayed over the bushel baskets in the railroad cars.

My father worked at several of the plataformas, as did I (for very short periods of time).

My older sisters quit school when they were ternagers and went to work for the Del Monte plant. It was because of them that my family was able to have a decent house, the one I grew up in.

My oldest sister, María Luisa, helped organize he me co-workers into a union and they were all fired. They went to work at the other, smaller, cannery, until Del Monte hired three back.

After they got married and my mother was forced to work, it was at Del Monte that she worked. At first it was the night shift but as she accumulated “señorilla,” she was able to work days.

I think every one of my siblings worked there at one time or another. I did too. Hated it.

A lot of people also worked out in the fields, cutting spinach and packing it into bushel baskets. I never had to do that, thank God.

Spinach is a winter crop (this area is called the Winter Garden of Texas) so the spinach season is in full blast in December and January. Some years, it gets so cold that the ice kills the spinach and deprives a lot of people of work for weeks. The only time we were “on welfare” (which meant accepting government surplus food) was after such hard freezes.

That was during the good old days.

Today there are no plataformas. The railroad that used to take the fresh spinach away stopped running decades ago. And this year the Del Monte plant closed.

Whatever spinach is harvested in the county is shipped out of Uvalde or Carizzo Springs.

Still, the festival must go on. Former residents who now live in Wisconsin, North Dakota and other states, or in other Texas cities, have come back to enjoy the festivities and to see old friends and reminisce about the old days.

A cold front came in last night and a chilly wind is blowing in from the north. That won’t stop this celebration of a a green leafy vegetable that is good for you. Really.

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Poem: Autumn Ritual

(Published in The Sonora Review, Issue 74)

 

We leave you in the dark, always

in pre-dawn darkness, la madrugada,

in hopes of making it to Nebraska

or Kansas by nightfall. With square blank

stares, you watch us cram the old Plymouth

with as much stuff as we can:

 

School clothes bought in Grafton

or Grand Forks. (No need to take work

clothes; we’ll need them again next summer.)

Pots. Pans. Tools. An empty two-pound

Folgers Coffee can to pee in to cut down

on the number of stops.

 

We leave you to fend for yourself,

door and windows shut but not locked

(there are no locks in our North Dakota).

The warmth of the cast-iron wood

stove will linger for an hour or two,

then the Red River Valley frigidness

 

will settle in until our return in spring.

You will welcome visitors in our absence.

Not hobos or bums (there are none

in our North Dakota) but rats and mice

and other vermin. And powdered

black dirt howling as it blows

 

in from the Canadian plains.

And we leave you in silence,

cold and piercing, broken only

by the wail of the wind as it fills

the vacuum we leave behind.

The engine starts and hums as we

 

clamor on board. My father behind

the wheel. My mother next to him.

My older brother Norberto next to her.

From the back we watch you

slide out of sight, followed

by the other dark houses in the camp.

 

Soon there’s nothing to see except

for the lights from the dashboard,

flickering and shimmering like prayers

in a chapel. And then our silence is broken

as we hear my mother begin her own:

en el nombre sea de Dios.

 

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Please: It’s Beto, not Baydough!

SERIOUSLY, NOW: Beto O’Rourke is probably going to be out next US senator from Texas. With that in mind, I think we should make certain we all pronounce his name correctly. Not O’Rourke. As weird and as complex the last name is, most of us know how to pronounce it. It’s the simpler, shorter Beto that has non-Spanish-speaking people perplexed.

Beto is short for any of the numerous Spanish names ending in “berto” (Alberto, Roberto, Norberto, Gilberto, Humberto, Dagoberto, Rigoberto, etc.), and it has a simple pronunciation. Yet, over this past year, I’ve heard many different versions.

Let’s start for how it’s not pronounced. It’s not BAY-toe or BEH-toe or BAY-dough. It’s not BEET-owe.

So here is the correct way: you stress the first syllable, which is pronounced “beh,” as in meh, or heh. There is no “y” or “i” sound at the end of that “e.”

Then the second syllable is “toh, with the “o” sound similar to what you find in “tortilla” or “pork” or “snort” or “torque.” Notice: there is no “u” sound at the end of the “o”.

Now let’s turn to the consonants.

If you don’t get these exactly right, you’ll still be OK, unlike with the vowel sounds, but if you want to sound authentic, remember this about the “B”:

It’s a softish “B,” kind of halfway between a “b” and a “v”. Start by pressing your lips together, as you normally do when beginning a word with the letter b, then quickly open them and slide your upper teeth against the inside of your lower lip as if you had a change of heart and decided to go with a v instead. If you do this long enough, eventually you might get skillful enough to skip the “b” part altogether.

And know this about the “t”: it’s a hard “t.” Don’t glide over it, or pronounce it like a “d,” the way most English speakers pronounce the t in the word “veto” or “Velveeta” or cheetah with the tongue barely touching the top of your mouth. It’s more like the “t” in “bet” or “vet” or “cat.” Pretend you’re British and don’t just tap the tip of your tongue to the top of your mouth. Flatten much of the tongue against the top of the mouth.

So, there you have it: an easy guide to pronouncing the first name of our next president. Excuse me, I meant senator. I’m sure there are plenty of Spanish linguistic experts out there who will find fault with some or all of this, and I welcome their input. We need to get this right!

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On Flags and Patriotism (or, Who Says Flags Don’t Talk?)

[In June, 1980, less than a year after starting to work for The Houston Post, I was sent out to do a Flag Day story for the next day. I wasn’t given any guidance and I didn’t ask for any. I figure it would be easy to simply approach people and interview them about the flag then put together a story. But by the middle of the afternoon, after having talked to a bunch of folks on the streets and in stores, I had nothing. Just bland clichés about the flag.

I was close to panicking and then I had what I thought was a stupidly brilliant or brilliantly stupid idea: I would do a piece about a fictitious (what other kind is there?) interview with an American flag.

So I hurried back to the newsroom and started working on a piece, without telling my editors what I was doing. When I finished, I turned it in and waited. I knew I was taking a big risk. My editors could say no way and order me to go out and conduct some real interviews, or they could hold their noses and run it and I’d be the laughing stock of the newsroom, and Houston.

I could see the editor talking intently to his assistant city editors, and I saw him walk to the office of the managing editor to talk to him. I had become convinced that there was no way the piece would run After a while, however, the city editor came to my desk and, smiling and shaking his head in a way that said, “I can’t believe I’m doing this,” told me they would run it.

I didn’t get much reaction from my fellow newsroom employees, so I assumed they were less than impressed and were just too nice to say anything about. I got a lot of ribbing from friends; some demanded to know what inanimate object I would next interview.

That was before email so I had to wait a few days for letters to arrive in the mail. There weren’t many, but they were all positive. There were a few letters to the editor praising the article, one said something like, “where have you been hiding Juan Ramón Palomo?”  Anyway, here’s the piece, along with the editor’s note. Happy Flag Day.]

Editor’s note: Post reporter Juan Ramón Palomo received a Flag Day assignment. The interview is fictitious, but the subject is not.

Friday was a typically sultry late-spring day in Houston. With only a light wind blowing, it was hardly the type of day you would choose to expose yourself to the elements.

Yet there it flew. The American Flag — Old Glory — in its red, white and blue vesture, dutifully displaying its message of freedom to the world, as it has done almost daily, in one form or another, for some 200 years.

Against the brutal Texas sun, the battered banner’s diaphanous texture seemed frail and vulnerable to the alien and hostile uncertainties of the world.
At the same time, however, it was proud — valiantly, not defiantly proud.

AS THE SUN BEGAN TO play its daily game of hide-and-seek behind Houston’s skyscrapers, I realized it wouldn’t be too long before its caretaker would come to lower it from its anchor for its nightly rest. I approached its flagpole with caution and great awe.
Since Saturday would be Flag Day, I asked, would it mind submitting to a brief interview to talk about itself?
Perhaps because so few of us seem to ever pay much attention to it anymore, the flag seemed surprised that I would address it, but it answered nonetheless.

It’s not too often I get to talk about myself, it began. Americans have their ideas about me and my functions, and as long as those ideas are not disturbed, they tend to take me for granted.

That’s understandable, however. People have to live their lives, and if they were to spend an inordinate amount of time paying homage to me I would worry about the future of this country and the world.

I HAVE NEVER DEMANDED to be the center of attention. I am honored that one day out of the year is set aside just for me, but I would find even that unnecessary if Americans would strive constantly to fulfill the American dream.

I am, after all, merely a symbol. When people pledge allegiance to me they’re pledging their faithfulness to everything good that America stands for, to freedom, liberty or democracy — whatever you want to call it, it’s all the same thing. It’s a belief that man knows what is best for himself. Nothing more, nothing less.

Of course it bothered me that people not too long ago went around burning me, spitting on me or stitching me to the back pockets of their jeans. Childish actions have always disturbed me.

But it bothered me no more than the actions of others who, while proclaiming patriotism use me for their personal gain, or to satisfy their notion of what the United States is all about.

IT BOTHERS ME THAT I am a convenient excuse for some to criticize and sometimes even deny freedom to those whose views don’t match theirs. The 50 stars on my face represent the states in the union, of course, but in a way, they also stand for the diversity of this country. This is a large nation and there’s room for all points of view.

I don’t buy for one minute the alarmist view that I am no longer respected around the world. These stars and stripes still command deep and widespread admiration across the face of the Earth, and it’s not because we are among those societies with the best weaponry and the most durable economy.

We are held in high regard because, despite our faults – and we have plenty – we have consistently believed in and tried to protect the dignity of man. Other countries have done that, of course, but it was not until we came along that a society took as its major function the protection of its individual members’ liberties.

WE HAVE STRAYED from that over years, and there have been some dark and frightening periods in our history when we have become so concerned for the survival of the nation that we have forgotten about the survival of individual liberties.

Often, in our desire to correct the failures of society, or protect our personal interests, we asked for more government. We’ve reached a point where government becomes a suppressor, an entity with a mind and spirit of its own.
At that, point, people begin clamoring for less government and demand only to be left alone, and that’s understandable.

Just as on different days the ever-changing winds cause me to wave in different directions, so does the mood of the people cause the course of America to change. I find that healthy. We have always survived such changes, and I have faith we always will because our goal will always remain the same.

Perhaps that’s my function: to remind people that no matter how fierce the winds and how unsettled the times, America will survive.
Yes, I’ll be flying extra proud on Flag Day, and I wouldn’t do that if I lacked confidence.

PRESENTLY, THE security guard arrived and slowly began the task of lowering the flag. He folded it carefully and tucked it under his arm as he walked, tired, toward the building. At the top of the stairs he stopped; then turned to look at the lessening traffic. The young man looked towards the flagpole where the cable that just minutes earlier had hoisted the flag now clanged a noisy, steady and mournful beat against the metal pole. He patted the flag gently, as if to assure it that it would indeed be flying again the next day, then entered the building.

 

 

 

 

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Voodoo politics

I WAS GOING through some old files today when I came across a page from a reporter’s notebook.

It didn’t look like much and I was about to throw it out when I realized what it was: Part of my notes from a 1980 news conference by George Bush when he returned to Houston aftevoodoor being selected by Reagan as his running mate.

At that session, Bush was asked whether he though Reagan’s economic plan was “voodoo economics,” as Bush had claimed during the campaign. Bush’s reply: “I never said that!”  He not only claimed he had never said those words, he challenged anyone to find a tape of him saying that.

I went back to the newsroom and wrote a story about that, and The Post had put it on the front page. Then I started to have doubts about it, because other news outlets had ignored Bush’s strange denial.

I began to get real worried when Bush tried to pass it off as a joke, one that I obviously hadn’t gotten. But if it had been a joke, it had fooled a key Bush aide I had talked to in reporting the story. She was obviously troubled by his denial and said so.

Fortunately, the story got picked up by the wires and the TV networks were able to get hold of footage of the news conference that showed clearly Bush was not joking.

My story had included interviews with several national political reporters, all of whom said they had heard Bush used “voodoo economics” at various times during the campaign, but I was never able to find a tape.

However, Ken Bode of NBC-News dug up a clip of Bush uttering the words and introduced it with the words, “Challenge accepted” on the network’s evening broadcast the next day.

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The column that changed history?

AFTER MANY YEARS of lobbying for the job, I finally convinced the Houston Post to agree to make me a columnist for the paper in the summer of 1990.

I had been working as a Washington correspondent for The Post when I moved back to Houston to begin writing a column that was supposed to run on the front page of the Metro section three times a week.

(My column was later moved to the op-ed page and reduced to twice a week, but that’s another story for another time.)

My first week as a columnist proved a bit rocky because the paper’s editor was not pleased with my efforts even though I was getting plenty of positive feedback from readers.

His main complaint was that, as a Metro columnist, I should be writing about local and state issues, and he wanted me to do some reporting, not just opining. I actually was. I wrote my very first column after visiting the AIDS quilt at the George R. Brown Convention Center.

The editor didn’t think that was hard-hitting enough. So, for my second column, I wrote about the GOP gubernatorial candidate Clayton Williams’ refusal to debate his Democratic opponent, Ann Richards.

In the column (below), I called him a chicken and a spoiled brat and wrote that the real reason he didn’t want to debate was not, as he claimed, because Richards refused to sign a pledge to play nice but rather because he knew he could not control what came out of his own mouth.

The next morning when I picked up my paper, there was my column, splashed across the top of the front page! Not the front page of the Metro Section, but the front page of the entire paper.

That raised a lot of eyebrows, including mine. As much as I liked the exposure my column was getting, I was a firm believer in the theory that the front page of a newspaper should be reserved for news, and that opinion pieces should go inside the paper.

Of course, the content of the column was also controversial. Williams’ supporters thought it was unfair while Richards’ voters loved it.

Predictably, the column was widely circulated around the state.

THAT AFTERNOON, at a luncheon by the Dallas Crime Commission, to which both candidates were invited, Clayton Williams famously declined to shake Ann Richards’ outstretched hands, telling her, “I’m here to call you a liar today.”

That was pretty much the end of the Williams campaign. The man who had led Richards by 11 percentage points late in the summer ended up losing to Richards in November.

Many years later, I heard from an acquaintance who had been a Richards campaign worker that Williams had just finished reading my column before he arrived at that luncheon, and that its content had pissed him off so much that he ended up pulling his childish stunt.

The campaign worker didn’t tell me how she knew Williams had been reading my column and I was too much in shock to think of asking. Since then, I’ve asked others familiar with the Richards campaign and none has confirmed what my acquaintance claimed.

But I do find it interesting that at the luncheon Williams attacked Richards for lying about her primary opponents, former Gov. Mark White and former Attorney General Jim Mattox, echoing words at the end of my column in which I reminded readers of how badly she had mistreated the two men. (I wrote that she had “played dirty” against White.)

SO, DID MY column alter the course of the race? It’s hard to tell, even if many political experts agree that Williams’ refusal to shake Richards’ hand was the turning point in the election. Unless somebody in the Williams campaign comes forward to say that Williams had indeed just read my column (or that he hadn’t), we’ll never know.

I’m enough of a journalistic romantic that I want to believe that it’s true. And who knows, maybe by the time I die, I will go around babbling that it indeed was true!

There’s a big problem, though. If I want to take credit for Richards’ victory, I must be willing to also take the blame for some of the events after the 1990 election. Chief among them would be the election of George W. Bush as president.

How do I figure that? It’s simple: had Williams won, he would have been an incumbent in 1992 and it would have been highly unlikely that Bush would have run for governor against his fellow Republican. And if Bush had never been elected governor (or if he had been elected later), would he have run for president in 2000?

And if Bush had not been elected president would 78-year-old Harry Whittington been shot by the vice president while quail hunting at a South Texas ranch?

And if …?

That’s a lot of ifs. I’m not sure I want to go there.

Here is the column:

HOUSTON POST  |  Page 1  | October 11, 1990

Voters can see through Williams-Richards debate debacle

I SUPPOSE Clayton Williams and his campaign coterie think they’ve found the ideal way to handle his refusal to debate Ann Richards, but they’re fooling no one.

Williams is sitting on a nice lead and apparently sees no reason to give her a chance to score points against him. That would be fine if Williams were upfront about it. But it’s obvious the real reason is that, for all his bluster about how tough he is, the man is a chicken.

Williams is throwing up a lame excuse for refusing to meet Richards face-to-face to answer real live questions from real-life reporters on a real live show.

If Richards won’t promise to be nice to him for the rest of the campaign, he tells us, he won’t debate her.

Williams sounds like a spoiled brat, hiding behind Mommy Manners’ skirts and complaining that Mean Ol’ Annie just won’t play fair.

Fair? This from the man who casts not-so-subtle aspersions about Richards’ private life by questioning whether she’s running for governor of Texas or mayor of San Francisco.

This from the man who sees nothing wrong with questioning whether recovering alcoholic Richards is again hitting the bottle. This, also, from the man who won’t raise a finger to stop the negative radio ads against Richards by the GOP.

Maybe Richards ought to call his bluffand sign the stupid pledge. After all, we all know that political promises mean nothing. (Just read George’s lips.)

Of course, if she were to give in to such an inane demand, Williams would come
up with another silly excuse.

He ought to take a lesson from fellow Republican Phil Gramm, who doesn’t insult us with phony excuses for not wanting to debate.

Gramm’s response is that Hugh Parmer’s campaign can hardly be called credible and therefore he’s not going to waste his time dealing with it.

Not too generous, but at least he’shonest. Besides, no one can ever accuse Gramm of being scared he’ll say the wrong thing in public.

Williams, on the other hand, can’t open his mouth without stuffing both his West Texas boots in it. And. oh what big boots they are.

I covered two of Williams’ trips to Washington. During the first, he claimed Mexican Americans would vote for him because he met his wife at a Mexican restaurant, loved Mexican music and hunted in Mexico. Back in South Texas, we used to have a word for such patronizing Anglos: fools.

On his second trip, Williams claimed that as a result of his visit, the White House had decided to ease gas pipeline regulations. This was the week the secretary of energy had said the administration would do just that. The man was either lying or he was ignorant. Either way, it doesn’t say much for the man who wants to be our next leader.
And these are just his Washington statements. You already know what he’s said here.

The Williams folk would like us to think he’s just a good ol’ boy with an occasional slip of the tongue. It’s more like a persistent brainslide. Williams has ample reason to fear a debate. He is obviously petrified the voters will see that his primary qualification to be governor is his ability to buy the GOP nomination and maybe the office itself.

Please don’t interpret this as an endorsement of Richards, for it is not. Her inept campaign is matched only by the ineptness of her message: vote for me because I’m not crazy like the other guy.

She is obviously not a good student of Texas political history. We’ve always elected crazy people governor — the loonier the better. It doesn’t help her any that she did play dirty in the primary against former Gov. Mark White, thus giving Williams the ammunition he thinks he needs to avoid a debate. And her arrogant avoidance of Jim Mattox in the runoff makes her less than pure when it comes to debates, but at least the voters got a chance to see both in debates before the first election.

Williams is denying us that chance now. He should not be allowed to do that.

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My Barbara Bush Memory

IN 1992, I was asked to write an editorial to be published in The Houston Post the Sunday before the Republican National Convention was to open in the Astrodome.

My assignment was to welcome President George Bush to his hometown but to remind him that his presidency so far had not exactly been a success, and to point out the areas for improvement.

It was a long editorial (there was a lot to criticize!) and ended up taking up the entire length of the space reserved for editorials. In a place that normally housed three editorials, there was just this one, titled, “Welcome Home, Mr. President.”

The piece became the talk of the convention. It was mentioned in news articles and broadcasts, and The Washington Post even reprinted it in its Monday op-ed page. (It went on to win first place in the state’s three top editorial writing contests.)

During the convention, Barbara Bush went on the PBS News Hour to be interviewed by Judy Woodruff. One of the questions Woodruff had for her was about the editorial.

“Well,” Bush replied with a huff, “The Houston Post has never endorsed my husband.”

This was a lie, of course, and Barbara Bush knew that.

The Post had repeatedly endorsed her husband in his various runs for public office. In fact, it went on to endorse him in 1992 also. (The editorial page staff had decided to back Bill Clinton but its decision was overruled by the paper’s owner at the last minute, and the editorial I had written endorsing Clinton was shelved.)

YET, INSTEAD of rebutting the editorial, instead of defending her husband by citing some of what she saw as his accomplishments and qualifications, she chose to lie.

In her hometown.

Before a national audience.

She lied.

That’s my Barbara Bush memory.

I am sorry she’s dead and I feel sadness for her family and others who loved her. But I refuse to join the parade of those who are trying to pass her off as an icon of decency and truth.

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