Recipe for Nopalitos (cactus) con Chile Colorado

This is really an easy dish to prepare even though it seems complicated. It takes very little time and it’s almost impossible to get wrong.

Ideally, the best place to get nopalitos is from the cactus plant in your backyard. If you don’t have them growing in your backyard, you’ll have to buy them. If you’re not lucky enough to live near an HEB that carries fresh nopales (or even luckier and have them growing in your backyard!), (in the produce section; they come in a plastic bag), you will have to use canned (in a jar, usually) nopales. Goya is one of the companies that sells them in jars.

Most stores carry them. Buy the smaller size; the larger one is way too much. If all they have is the large jar, use only about half of the contents. In Houston you can find fresh nopales at the mercado on Airline Drive, so you might check your local outdoor or farmers market in your city or town.

Whether you are cooking fresh or canned, you should rinse them several times to get rid of some of the vava, the slime, that oozes out of them when you cut nopales. (You might also want to cut the individual pieces into smaller pieces. Not necessary, and yeah, it’s time-consuming, but I think they look better in smaller pieces.

Keep the rinsed nopales in the sink on a colander or sieve to allow them to drain well while you make the chile sauce.

Depending on how much you’re making, take two dried chiles anchos and two dried chiles guajillos (also known as chiles de cascabel) and place them on a heated comal or pan for a few minutes on both sides. Don’t leave them on the hot comal for too long. Remove the stem and, if you want, the seeds, and place them in hot water, enough to cover them. Let them soak for about 10 minutes. (Don’t worry: the sauce will not be too spicy. I’ve been making it for years and only rarely to I have to worry about the spiciness. If you prefer a spicier sauce, roast a couple of dried chiles de arbol, soak them in hot water and toss them into the blender with the others.)

While you’ve got a hot comal, place three of four garlic cloves on it, unpeeled, until they become a bit soft and squishy, turning them as they heat so all sides are heated. 

Once the chiles have soaked, place them in a blender along with the garlic cloves (peeled) and some salt, and about a cup to a cup and a half of the water in which you soaked the chiles. Puree the chiles until you get a nice smooth paste. If it’s too thick (if it sticks to the bottom of the blender when you tilt it), add more of the water and puree some more.

Set the chile mixture aside.

In a skillet, place about a couple of teaspoons of olive oil, and heat over medium heat. Add several slices of onion and sauté them until the onion is soft. Add the nopales and stir well as they cook. If you’re using fresh nopales, they will take longer to cook, but not that much. (Some people blanche the nopales before sautéing them, but it’s not necessary.) When their color loses its brightness, they are cooked. Add some cilantro and continue cooking and stirring. You can add some cumin powder and Mexican oregano, but you don’t need to. Not much, about a teaspoon of each, perhaps. Stir some more. Add salt.

When most of the water released by the cactus has evaporated, break an egg into the nopales and stir briskly until the egg is no longer runny and is spread evenly throughout the pan. It might take some time because there will still be some water from the nopales in the pan, which will make it difficult for the egg to solidify, but it’s important, because you don’t want a mushy (or moochi, as Patti Jinich says) mess when you add the chile sauce. (Note: the egg is optional; I lot of people make them without egg but I like them that way because that’s the way my mother used to make them.)

Before adding the sauce, set some nopales aside for those in your household who might be intimidated by the chile. 

Add the sauce. You may not need all the sauce but add enough so that you’ll have a nice gravy – un caldito! – when you finish cooking. Also, if you have any left over, the cactus tends to absorb the liquid and you end up with no calditowhen you reheat the dish.

That’s it!  Serve with beans and corn tortillas. 

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May: Saying it with flowers

THE MONTH of May summons many images. Mother’s Day. Cinco de Mayo. Graduation. 

But anyone who grew up Catholic will tell you the real significance of the month is that May is the Virgin Mary’s month. 

During May, Catholics gather – at church or at people’s homes – to recite the Rosary in honor of Mary. It is an especially big deal among Latinos, where Mary is revered almost as much as God himself. 

When I was growing up in Crystal City, my sisters and I would go to church every weekday evening for the Rosary. It was supposed to be voluntary, and I guess it was, in the sense that paying taxes is a voluntary. If we didn’t go, we had to answer to the nuns and to our parents. 

When she was alive, my grandmother Manuela insisted we attend the Rosary, but after she died, I don’t think my mother ever forced us to do so. We were all so in awe with the many mysterious rituals of the church that we would have gone without any pressure.

It was a beautiful ritual, involving many sounds, smells and sights. The burning candles and the fresh flowers provided the smells. The sounds came from the chant-like recitation of the prayers that make up the Rosary, and the hymns sung in-between each misterio, (a set of 10 Hail Marys)

Dios te salve María…, the priest would begin the first part of the Hail Mary. “Santa María, madre de Dios…,” we responded with the second part. 

After 10 of those, we would do the Gloria al padre …, followed by the Lord’s Prayer. We’d then begin another set of 10 Hail Marys, except this time, people said the first part and the priest responded. The praying itself could get terribly monotonous, and much of the time most of us paid little attention to what we were mumbling. Often what emerged from our mouths was mere gibberish. This was particularly true at the end of the Hail Mary, when “now and at the hour (of our death),” which is translated into ahora y en la hora, often came out sounding like a never-ending rumble: oraienlaoraienlaoraienlaora.

Because the building was not air conditioned, its doors had to be left open and bats would often fly in. They fluttered back and forth from one end of the church to the other and we would watch them, much to the priest’s consternation, our head swaying in unison as we followed their path through the air. 

As we recited our Hail Marys, we were supposed to keep track on the rosary beads we’d all received when we made our first communion, but I was never able to concentrate. No matter how hard I tried, I was always one or two off.

WHILE THE praying itself was monotonous, what came in between the misterios made everything worthwhile. That was when we kids marched up the aisle with a handful of flowers and deposited them at the foot of the statue of the Virgin Mary. As we did this, the congregation sang one of the various songs dedicated to Mary. 

Ofreciéndole flores a la Virgen, we called it – offering flowers to the Virgin. Each of us was responsible for bringing flowers from home. We carried those precious flowers proudly as we walked toward the church and we beamed when the neighborhood ladies, sitting on their front porches, oohed and aahed over their beauty and marveled at are devotion to the Virgin. 

At first we were allowed to carry those flowers to Mary. Later, however, some do-gooder nun got the bright idea of pooling all the flowers into a big pile from which we were each handed handfuls as we began our procession of the aisle. 

The scheme was intended to ensure that all children, even those whose mothers didn’t have gardeners, would have flowers, but my sisters and I thought it was grossly unfair that the beautiful roses my mother had carefully cut from her precious bushes ended up in some other kids’ hands while we had to settle for oleanders or other ordinary flowers. 

IT WASN’T fair, of course, but by then we had learned never to question the actions of the nuns, or anybody in authority. And we had learned to accept that fairness and religion often don’t coexist.

Besides, in our hearts, we were certain that the Virgin Mary knew who brought those beautiful roses. That was what really mattered.

When it was all over, as we shuffled out the building, the choir would stay behind and sing one of two hymns, Adios Reyna del Cielo, or Adios o Virgen de Guadalupe, both hauntingly beautiful songs that to this day still bring tear to my eyes.

[This is an adaptation of a column I wrote for The Houston Post May 13, 1993]

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How the death of a mule led to the Palomos’ becoming Texans

I wrote this column in September, 1994, after a visit to California. I thought it might be of interest to my many Palomo nephews, nieces and cousins and their children and grandchildren who don’t know much about our family’s history.

HER EYES closed, she sat in her wheelchair outside her room. 

“Tía,” my sister said, tapping Tía Benita on the shoulder. 

“Look who’s with me,” Luisa added, in Spanish, when she opened her eyes. 

“Emilio?” Tía asked feebly. An understandable mistake given my resemblance to Luisa’s son.

Once I embraced her and told her who I was some on the confusion disappeared and Tía Benita spoke in a strong voice. Of how glad she was I was taking the time to visit her. About how she was asleep because she’d had another sleepless night. 

Benita Palomo Alfaro was born outside San Luís Potosi on April 3, 1900, which makes her 94. 

Even as kids, all of us were intrigued by her birthdate, and how easy that would always make it for us to remember her age. But we never imagined she’d still be alive as the Millennium approaches, that we’d actually be contemplating having a 100-year-old aunt. 

When Alejandro and Manuela Palomo gathered their children in the middle of the night and fled the hacienda where my grandfather worked, Tía Benita, their ninth child, was the oldest. Eight others had come before her – all had died. 

Today she’s the sole survivor. By the time of the Palomos waded across the Rio Grande near Eagle Pass on a cool April day in 1920, the two youngest, Cirilo and Isabelita, had also died. 

Gertrudis died of tuberculosis in the late 1940s, leaving behind a young widow and six children. My grandmother died in 1951 and her husband died some 10 years later. He is buried a few blocks from where Tía Benita lives. 

Domingo, my father, died in 1984 and Adrián, the youngest, died a few years after that.

Although still strong of mind, body and spirit, old age, arthritis and other ailments have for several years conspired to deny Tía the use of her legs, so she spends most of her time either in bed or on her wheelchair in the San Jose, Calif., nursing home where she’s lived the past several years. 

That does not mean she’s been inactive. Far from it. Until the home’s kitchen changed directors, for instance, she would often help prepare the meals. And not long ago, she talked her granddaughter into taking her to Mexico to visit her birthplace – for the first time since the family left that country 74 years ago.

Tía Benita spoke about the departure for much of the hour or so we were there. I’d heard some of that story before, from my father and others, but she provided much more detail. All the versions I’d heard earlier had my grandfather fleeing Mexico because he was on the wrong side of the revolution, or something equally romantic. 

IT TURNS OUT it was nothing of the sort. 

It was the death of a mule that led to the Palomos’ becoming Texans. Not just any mule, of course. It was a prized mule, one of the two that performed a special task at the ranch. A mistake by my grandfather led to its being run over by a rail car. Fearing retribution from his boss, my grandfather quickly organized the great escape. It was a hard trip. They had no money and almost no food. They traveled at night and hid in the mountains by day. 

The final indignity came when a friend who had been paid to drive them across the Rio Grande pocketed the money and forced then to wade across instead. 

They settled in Crystal City and in the nearby farms. It was there that Tia Benita met Melecio Alfaro, a labor contractor who would become her husband. Tío Melecio’s relative affluence was what helped her family survive, especially during the Great Depression. 

And the Alfaros were who kept our family alive in 1938. That year my mother almost died after giving birth to her second child and my father nearly lost his arm to gangrene after a job accident. His bosses didn’t believe it was a work-related injury and refused pay for his treatment. Finally, it was Tia Benita who lent my father the 50 cents he needed to visit the doctor when he could no longer take the pain. And it was she, along with Louisa, who saw to the care and feeding of my brothers and sisters. 

IT SEEMED fitting, then, that it was with Louisa’s help that Tia was now telling me now about that life so long ago. 

“Fué una vida muy dura, hijo,” she said. We agreed. How could it be classified as anything but a difficult life? Later as we prepared to leave, she mused, “¿Por qué me habrá dejado Diocito que viva tantos aõs?

She obviously didn’t need an answer. But if she had, I might have said that maybe God intended her to live so long so she could bring us all a sense of humility.

[Benita Palomo Alfaro died in 2003. She was 103. It is unclear exactly how many siblings she had. A list prepared by my oldest sister, Maria Luisa, with the help of Tía Benita, indicates there were 13. The oldest was Daria, born in 1895. She was followed by Felipe, 1896, Domitila, 1898, Teresito, 1899 and Benita, 1900. They were followed by Gertrudis, Domingo (1904), another Domitila, Francisca, Cirilo, Adrian, Pedro and Isabel.]

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On the 25th Anniversary of the death of The Houston Post: my best column for that paper

Today, April 18, is the 25th anniversary of the death of The Houston Post, the newspaper for which I worked from 1979 until its demise (except for a short period during which I worked for USA TODAY). I worked as a general-assignment reporter, political writer, foreign correspondent, Washington correspondent and columnist and editorial writer. I enjoyed every one of those jobs, but the job as columnist gave me the most satisfaction. I’ve often been asked which of my some 400 columns written over close to five years I’m most proud. I have never really offered a response because I wrote so many columns I thought were good (and I wrote a lot of shitty columns too!) but I’ve now decided that this column is my best, and my favorite. Here’s why: When George Bush decided to attack Iraq on January 16, 1991 (about three months after I’d started writing a column), I had already written my column for the next day, and had turned it in to my editors. A few minutes later, the news came across the wire that the war had started. It was around 5 p.m. and my deadline was around 6. I decided that the situation was so grave that I could not possibly go with the column I had written (I don’t remember what it was about); I had to write a new one, about the situation in the Middle East. So I went to my editor and requested that I be given back the column. He reluctantly agreed, reminding me of my deadline. I went back to my desk not really knowing if I could write a column in less than two hours. But I started, and the following words just flowed through my fingers into the computer. In less than an hour, I had turned this new column over to the editor, and it appeared in the next morning’s paper with almost no changes, under the headline, “Where has all the sanity gone?”

SO NOW WE are at war. 

As I write this, it is too early to tell how this semi-declared war is Going.

Are the good guys winning?

We’ve been told we should never even doubt that.

Are some of our soldiers dying?

Are some of them already lying in pain and anguish in the desert or on some military hospital ship off the coast of Saudi Arabia?

Are innocent Iraqi men, women and children dying by the hundreds as our planes and missiles deliver their lethal payloads?

We’ve been told to expect as much.

Are Iraqi missiles and planes loaded with poison gas on biological bombs making their way through the darkness to Jerusalem or Tel Aviv?

We’ve been warned that too is a possibility.

How long will it be before the flag-draped coffins start arriving at American air bases, from there to be transported to cities and towns across the country for military burials?

Not long, I’m sure.

How many? 

Who knows.

How many grieving widows, mothers and fathers, children, siblings and other loved ones will gather around those caskets to bit them farewell.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands, if some of the more dire predictions prove true.

How many times will we hear the expression, “he died for his country” uttered by pastors and other eulogists, and how many times will the grieving survivors be comforted by that?

YES, THIS IS war.

This is what we as a country, through our elected representative, decided we wanted, even if we set aside our national charter, the Constitution, in doing so.

We, the people gave one man, George Bush, the power and the authority to kill and maim people – to bring another human, Saddam Hussein, to his knees.

And we gave George Bush the power and authority to subject our uniformed men and women to the same fates of death and destruction,

It doesn’t sound nice, but that is what war is: human beings resorting to killing and maiming each other because they failed – or refused – to use their reasoning faculties.

“War begins,” the headline of the first wire service story read.

A more accurate headline would have been, “Sanity ends,” for war is surely not just an absence of peace – as we’ve been told – war is an absence of sanity.

There is little comfort to those who must suffer the consequences that one side was saner than the other, that one side was right and the other was wrong, that one leader was a madman while the other was a statesman.

There is no comfort in war.

“The liberation of Kuwait has begun,” were the first words from the White House.

No doubt there will be a successful conclusion to this liberation, but what about the liberation of mankind from the horrors of war? When is that going to begin?

When is the United Nations going to set a deadline for our liberation from insanity?

IT IS A strange experience, being a witness to this tragic turn of historical events. I have never experience this before, since Vietnam pretty much sneaked up on us.

I am scared, and I am angry.

As I look across the newsroom, the faces of my colleagues are somber, and even the feeble attempts at humor seemed laced with dread.

This is all new to us, and some of us haven’t quite figured out how to react, as I’m certain most of you haven’t.

Yet it’s news and we must do our jobs. The adrenalin will flow, the pulses will quicken as we rush to meet this first deadline for bringing you the first installment of the news of this latest failure of mankind.

We’ll do the job, as you will too. But you and I will go home at night to our warm beds and our loved ones.

In the Middle East, even at his dawning hour of the war, there are some people – Americans, Arabs and others – who will never go home.

Welcome to our war.

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Musings on a farm labor lexicon

I GREW UP in Crystal City, a South Texas town that became a virtual ghost town every summer as most of its residents, including my family, went “up north,” as we referred to it, to work in the agricultural fields of states in the Midwest and Northwest. 

My family started going north in the summer of 1943, a month or so after my sister Dora was born. The family piled onto the back of a labor contractor’s flatback truck covered with a heavy tarp. They were joined by the Trujillos, a family that lived a couple of blocks away, and possibly others, on their journey to Wisconsin, where they thinned and weeded sugar beet fields. 

One day my father and Mr. Trujillo went into town and came back with a car they had jointly bought. Before the summer was over, one of the men bought the other one out and, just like that, we had our very own car.

We were to stay on the migrant trail for the next couple of decades, even as most of my siblings (I am the youngest) married and left the family. In the end, it was just my parents and me, traveling to California where we worked in the numerous food processing plants around Gilroy. And in the very, very end, it was just me, going West to work during the summer break from college.

When we talked about going up north, we were talking, for the most part, about three possible types of jobs: las piscaslas limpias, or el desahije (des-AY-heh). There were other types of work, but these were the most prominent.

Las piscas (from the word piscar, to pick) more often than not referred to picking cotton, and that usually involved traveling to other parts of Texas. (I never picked cotton.) Work picking other crops was usually not called la pisca. Instead, we referred to it by the name of the crop we were picking: la papa, el pepino, el tomate, etc.

La limpia (from the word limpiar, to clean) referred to any work removing weeds from a field, either with a hoe or by hand. 

Finally, el desahije was a word reserved almost exclusively for sugar beets, and it involved thinning out, with a hoe, the young plants to ensure that each surviving plant had enough room in which to grow. 

Sugar beets required both a desahije, performed first and a limpia, done several weeks after the desahije to remove any weeds that may have sprouted since. In particularly rainy summers, some beet fields required a second, or even third limpia.

The beets had to be harvested, of course. The harvesting was originally done by hand but by the time I started to become aware of things, a machine had already been invented to do the job. The hand harvesting of beets was not called a pisca, though; it was called a tapéo (tah-PEH-o). My guess is that word came from the English phrase “to top” because before they could place the beets in the baskets, workers had to first cut off the leafy top with a sharp machete (which had a nice hook at the tip with which they could pick up the beet from the ground). That was called “topping,” hence the word tapear. I think.

THERE WERE other works for other harvests. For instance, gathering onions was called “el rebote.” I’ve never been able to figure that one out, for rebotar means to bounce, to rebound. The only possible explanation I have is that in order to gather the onions, you had to first snip off the roots (la barba) and the leafy green stems with a pair of shears, and the onions drop to the ground (or into the bushel basket), where they bounce around a bit. 

There was el mananeo, (or manoneo?) the gathering of green onions into a bunch with a rubber band around them. I’m not sure about this, but I think the term came from the fact that the bunches were usually what a worker could fit in his or hand (la mano) at one time. Pure conjecture here.

All of this just to talk to you about my fascination with the word desahije. For years, I have wondered where that word came from and how it came to be. I tried to find it in various Spanish dictionaries but had no luck. Until it occurred to me to break up the word. “Des” in Spanish is the same as “un” or “de” in English, so if I take off the “des,” I’m left with a word that sounds like aijar.

But I remembered that most Spanish words with an “a” or “i” sound often are preceded by the letter “h,” which is silent. So now I had ahijar. Bingo! That word exists in the dictionary. Among its various meanings is “to bud, to shoot out.”

A related word is ahijado (or ahijada), which means godchild, from the root words hijo/hija

Suddenly it all began to make sense. To desahijar means to remove the godchildren of the beet plants that are budding or shooting out near the plants you want to keep (the rule of thumb back then was that the distance between two plants should be 12 inches, or the length of the hoe’s blade). As mentioned above, this serves to give the surviving plant plenty of room in which to grow.

There’s one more word related to sugar beets I’d like to mention: descuatar. It comes from the word cuate, which means twin. We used it when we came across two sugar beet plants so close to each other that one of them couldn’t be removed with a hoe. We had to stoop down to pull out the interloper (the cuate) with our fingers. That meant extra effort and it slowed us down, so we hated having to descuatar

AND A FINAL thing: when we talked about farm work, we never used the word campo to refer to a field (neither did we refer to ourselves as campesinos or migrantes; I don’t know what we called ourselves, actually, other than trabajadores). Instead, we worked in las labores. That may have come from campo de labores, which my dictionary says means “cultivated fields.”

So that’s it. A migrant worker dictionary for you. 

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Latinos are here to stay. Get used to it.

I wrote this Houston Post column some 28 years ago. I post it here to show how, sadly, things haven’t changed very much when it comes to race relations in this country. — JRP

HISPANICS, SAY THE letters to the editor, want everything handed to us by the courts. We don’t want to work for our rewards as do other segments of American society. 

They ignore efforts by groups such as the Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project to register people to vote and get them to the polls. And when the leaders of these groups appear before the City Council or a judge to demand a fair shot at the system, they are automatically dismissed as “a handful” of activists out to benefit themselves. 

Others tell us that Hispanics are lazy, that we want to come to this country to get on food stamps and other forms of welfare. 

These people conveniently ignore that it is we who pick the vegetables that make it to their tables. It is we who take care of their babies and clean their houses. It is we who keep their hotels and restaurants running. It is we who keep their streets clean and pick up the garbage. It is we who build their houses in office buildings. It is we who wash their cars – most of it at miserable minimum wages, or worse. 

You Hispanics don’t vote, some tell us, so you have no right to demand anything. When we do well, we’re told we don’t vote in large enough numbers. And when we do vote in large enough numbers, they say we don’t cast educated votes because we vote only for the Hispanic candidates.

It’s OK to carve out districts to protect Republican and Democratic incumbents, but it’s not OK to carve out Hispanic district. Overlooked is the fact, of course, that people always have voted to have their own kind represent them in government. Anglos have voted for Anglos, Italians have voted for Italians, Jews for Jews, Irish for Irish, blacks for blacks, and so on. 

But when our time comes to send a person to Congress, the state Senate or the City Council, we are called racist because we want to send one of our own. White people who would sooner lop off their hands and cast a vote for a nonwhite suddenly find themselves qualified to lecture us on tolerance. Still others say that Hispanics don’t want to be part of American society. We would rather speak our foreign language then learn English, and we want the rest of society to learn Spanish to communicate with us. 

Other leaders have causes and are described as impassioned or committed men and women of vision. Our leaders aren’t allowed to have causes. Instead, they have “their own agenda” and they are described as “self-appointed,” shrill or strident. 

They love to talk about their ancestors who came over from Germany or Italy and wisely realized they had to learn English to make it in this country, as if we’re too dumb to realize the same thing – as if most of us aren’t doing just that. Most of us speak English. Most of us don’t need bilingual education and bilingual ballots and bilingual signs. 

But as long as people from Mexico and other parts of Latin America keep coming here – yes, to do all those jobs most Americans find beneath them – there will be people who will need some extra help to get along. Is it too much to ask for a bit of tolerance to make their transition easier than it was for some of us who did not have such benefits? 

THE POINT I’M trying to make, folks, is that it’s getting very tiresome, listening to all this nonsensical and hysterical reaction every time we demand a little fairness and justice. 

We understand that some of you are tired of this whole minorities mess and are frustrated that life ain’t as easy as it used to be when we knew our place. We can only response that fatigue is no justification for tolerating inequalities. We too are tired. We’re tired of being told to wait, to constantly wait. We’ve been very patient. 

It’s getting tiresome, listening to the childish refrain that if we don’t like the way things are, we should go back to where we came from, or that we have no right to complain because our life here is better than wherever we used to call home. 

I hate to break it to those of you who are still living in the 19th century, but we are home. For many of us this is where we came from, and for the rest of us, we are home because we chose to make this our home, just as your ancestor did. 

We are here to stay and there’s going to be more of us every year, so you might as well get used to it. We can all either learn to live with each other and accommodate each other’s needs, or we will end up with that fragmented nation everybody keeps predicting. 

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On ‘Mal de Ojo,’ Human Touch & Erecting Walls

I wrote this piece in 1998 for The Salt Journal, a short-lived magazine founded by my good friend David Barton, a damn good writer (and son of my longtime mentor and friend Bob Barton, Jr.). David had a vision of a journal devoted to mythology, religion and psychology. We didn’t succeed (I think we published about seven or eight issues), but the few months I helped David with the journal were some of the most fun and rewarding of my journalistic career. This piece was based on a shorter column I had written for USA TODAY.

A RECENT ARTICLE in a Texas newspaper spoke of mal de ojo and described it as “the evil eye,” which is the way that term is often translated in this country’s media. 

Growing up in South Texas in the 50s and 60s, I was never too far away from mal de ojo; It was very much a part of my life, like a cold or a toothache. Someone – either a member of my immediate family or a neighbor or a friend – was at one time another known to be suffering from el mal de ojo. 

The evil eye makes for good copy, but it is an awful translation. And an incorrect one. It introduces a concept of evil into something that has nothing at all to do with evil. And in so doing, it does a great disservice to a phenomenon that has such value. 

It was not something we feared, for it was nothing sinister, and did not involve the casting of wicked spells or the mutilation of voodoo dolls. It was – and remains – simply something that results from carelessness or neglect. 

When we talked about somebody giving someone, we usually meant that someone had admired a person – a baby or young child, more often than not – and then failed to reach out to touch that person, to pat her gently on the head, to caress her. It was never enough to utter our admiration of another person: we had to demonstrate, in a physical way, what we felt. 

The reason no one made a big deal out of mal de ojo was that there was a quick and easy remedy. All that was required was a person like Tía Sara, my mother’s sister, someone known for her healing powers. 

Not exactly a curandera, for curanderas are more like doctors in that healing is there full-time vocation. But every Mexican family has its own Tía Sara (almost always a female), someone who was perhaps a bit more sensitive to those around her, who’s got a special touch. They may have full-time jobs, or they may keep busy throughout the day taking care of their households, but in the evening, they can be called upon to pass their healing hands over ailing bodies.

They never get paid for those services, other than perhaps with a cup of coffee, some pan dulce and a heartfelt gracias

MY FIRST AND only personal brush with the mal de ojo came when I was about 5 years old. I paid a visit to another aunt, Tía Chavela, who lived across the street. Tía Chavela was the widow of Tío Tula, my father’s older brother. She was a teaser and she loved to pump us for information. She would have made a great talk show host.

“Which uncle do you like the most,” went a typical question. Your Tio Juan or Tío Adrian? If we were too quick with an answer to that one, she’d have another one ready. Which aunt? Which grandmother? Which godmother? 

She was someone whose request we simply could not turn down, and this time she talked me into giving her a preview of my upcoming dance performance at the pageant to be staged by Doña Herminia’s escuelita, the neighborhood kindergarten. She laughed with much delight and applauded heartily when I finished. But one thing she neglected to do was communicate her approval or amusement through touch, and that was her big mistake, because failing to touch those objects and people we admire is a sure way to give them mal de ojo.

Mal de ojo is, literally, the ailment caused by the eye. It is a malady that results when we fail to follow through on our initial approving impulse – with that gentle touch, human contact. It is caused by our stinginess, by our unwillingness or inability to openly dispense our admiration.

Its victims don’t have to be human, or alive. An admired lamp left untouched can suddenly topple from its integral perch and shatter into pieces. A coveted lovable kitten that the admirer fails to pick up and pet might soon quit frolicking and die.

In essence, mal de ojo is an illness caused by selfishness, by pride. It is a reminder that, as members of society, we have an obligation to become involved, to reach out and touch someone – to offer not only our approval, but also our warmth and our nurturing.

Sure enough, the day following my visit to my aunt’s house, I came down with a number of symptoms. Headache. Nausea. A general malaise. No big deal, but significant enough to keep me home from school, something that rarely happened. It wasn’t until Tia had performed her beautiful sorcery that I started to feel better.

Nothing too exotic: she simply passed a raw egg back and forth over my supine body while citing the Lord’s prayer, a few Hail Marys and other supplications to God, then she broke the egg into a glass half filled with water to demonstrate how the egg had sucked up the illness. It was there, for all to see: a dark orange spot in the middle of the yolk. 

Within 24 hours I was back at school. 

I RELAY THIS to point out the importance of family, neighbors and friends – our village, if you will – in determining who we are, how we react to what life has given us, and what we do to make this world a better place. 

One of the tragic things about modern life is that too many of us buy into the myth that we are self-made. And that, being self-made, we owe nothing to those who have come before us (and those still with us) who have influenced our thoughts and actions. 

An even greater tragedy is our impulse to erect walls around us to keep people away from us or keep out of sight or whatever makes us uncomfortable: the outstretched hands of poverty, the wretched faces of those not sick enough to be institutions yet not well enough to be integrated into our society, the angry voices of those who don’t agree with us – or just anybody who looks and sounds different. 

No longer content to build fences around our homes, we want the extra protection of walls – complete with guarded gates – around our communities. Many of us don’t even know our neighbors. Worse, we don’t want to become involved in their lives and their problems. 

In insulating ourselves from the ugliness around us, we deprive ourselves of the benefits of the caring caresses of people such as my aunts, the soothing gentle touches that offer us some protection from our self-centered impulses. 

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The Dark Side of the GOP

A few days ago, I posted this on FaceBook: 

“Sad to read the obituary today of one of my favorite journalists, Richard Reeves. He wrote for a number of publications, including the New York Times and Esquire. He was a regular PBS commentator and wrote several books about U.S. presidents. He wrote a lot of great stuff, but for me, the best words he wrote came In August 1992, when he was in Houston to cover the GOP convention for the National Journal. Here’s how he started one of his columns: “Convention journalism is getting better: “The Dark Side of the GOP” by Juan R. Palomo in The Houston Post. The toughest column I read this week, stripped of the style and let’s-pretend politesse of better-known writers …”

A number of my FB friends asked that I post a copy of the column. It took a while, but I finally found a copy (it doesn’t have the exact date), and here it is:

The Dark Side of the GOP

By Juan R. Palomo

Houston Post, August 1992

IN GRANTING bulldog Patrick Buchanan a prime-time slot Monday night, the Bush campaign allowed America, once again, to catch a glimpse of the dark side of the Republican Party. 

Doctors may have re stored Buchanan’s heart recently, but we have to wonder whether anybody can do much to put some heart into what is rapidly becoming the Grouchy Old Party, thanks to people like Buchanan, Jerry Falwell and Phyllis Schlafly. 

Certainly, Bush is doing little to rein in these people, despite his and wife Barbara’s transparent attempts to make us believe that they are distraught over some of the awful things Buchanan and some in the president’s campaign are doing and saying. 

What came across the screen Monday was an ugly, mean, vindictive and petty person. It wouldn’t have been so bad if the cameras had not panned across the Astrodome showing delegates, alternates and guests laughing their heads off in adoring glee each time Buchanan spewed out the vicious attacks on everything not endorsed by the right wing’s agenda. 

Buchanan cloaked his venom with what he likes to call his country’s “Judeo-Christian” tradition. Most of us are not great biblical scholars, but it doesn’t take a religious expert to know this Judeo-Christian tradition is based largely on tolerance, acceptance and love, three things that seemed to have taken a walk whenever the rightwing fanatics have taken over the spotlight. 

If there is a spirit about this convention, it is one of intolerance, a spirit that says if you’re not with us 100 percent, you’re our enemy. 

Take, for example, the many placards that were waved as Buchanan spoke with the message: “Family rights forever; Gay rights never.” 

Or take party Chairman Richard Bond’s words: “We are America. Those other people are not America.”

Or the actions of a group of young Republicans on Tuesday. Wearing convention credentials, they banged on the windows, shouted and chanted campaign slogans and insults at a restaurant where Democratic Party Chairman Ron Brown was trying to conduct a news briefing.

Contrast all that with Ronald Reagan’s words Monday night: “We are all equal in the eyes of God”

Contrast it all with the words of Massachusetts Gov. William Weld: “Everybody deserves to be treated with dignity.”

Weld, at least, has been consistent in that his words have matched his actions. But Reagan spent his entire political career uttering sweet words of love while tolerating – and benefiting from – the hateful words of this some of his rightwing followers.

Which is exactly the game the Bushes have been playing. In interview after interview, they go through exhaustive handwringing exercises deploring some of the sleazy tactics of people in this campaign and telling us that deep down they are good, decent intolerant people. But a good, decent and tolerant person does not allow those who work for him to play dirty, and he does not permit his party’s platform to be a document of exclusion. 

Tonight, Barbara Bush will stand before America as a symbol of this administration’s “family values” and she will be wildly cheered. The next night Bush will take his turn on the podium and also will talk about family values. He too will be wildly cheered.

But their words will ring hollow unless they act more convincingly to put a stop to all the hateful rhetoric and actions that are coming out of the Republican Party.

George and Barbara Bush talk about putting their arms around a hypothetical family member who is gay or has had an abortion. But let’s talk about real people. Can they bring themselves to put their arms around those very real members of the American family that the right wing of the party would love to banish from America? 

Can the Bushes, for instance, look one of their good friend Robert Mosbacher’s daughters in the eye and tell her they believe she should be denied equal rights because she is a lesbian, which is what Buchanan and his bunch believe? If they cannot do that, they should repudiate Buchanan, Schlafly and Falwell, and all those other apostles of hate who have taken over the Republican Party.

America is getting tired of these people and unless the GOP purges itself of them soon, it is in real danger of becoming a minority party. 

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Concentration camps, context and feigned outrage

RIGHT-WING NUTS (there’s a redundancy there, I know) are going bonkers over U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s use of the term “concentration camps” in reference to the Trump administration’s camps for undocumented immigrants. An insult to the millions who were murdered during the Holocaust, they say. An insult to their descendants. 

Rep. Liz Cheney, of Wyoming, was outraged – outraged, I tell you – at Ocasio-Cortez’s use of the term, imploring her to learn “actual history” (as opposed to, I guess, unreal history) and accused her of demeaning the 6 million Jews exterminated in the Holocaust.

Writing in The New Yorker, Masha Gessen makes the case that the argument 

is really about how we perceive history, ourselves, and ourselves in history. We learn to think of history as something that has already happened, to other people. Our own moment, filled as it is with minutiae destined to be forgotten, always looks smaller in comparison. As for history, the greater the event, the more mythologized it becomes. Despite our best intentions, the myth becomes a caricature of sorts. Hitler, or Stalin, comes to look like a two-dimensional villain—someone whom contemporaries could not have seen as a human being. The Holocaust, or the Gulag, are such monstrous events that the very idea of rendering them in any sort of gray scale seems monstrous, too. This has the effect of making them, essentially, unimaginable. In crafting the story of something that should never have been allowed to happen, we forge the story of something that couldn’t possibly have happened. Or, to use a phrase only slightly out of context, something that can’t happen here.

Gessen has a very good point, but it is really unnecessary because the foaming-at-the-mouth of Cheney, et al, is not about perceived insults to Holocaust victims, it is about politics. It’s about continuing their drive to demonize yet another outspoken Democratic female politician. How long before we begin to hear chants of “lock her up!”?

BUT AS LONG as we’re talking about history, maybe Cheney should start learning hers. May I suggest she start with a recently released book, “El Norte: The Epic and Forgotten Story of Hispanic North America” by Carrie Gibson. The book has its share of faults (among other sins, it covers La Raza Unida in a couple of paragraphs, dismissing its importance, and never even mentions Raza founder José Angel Gutiérrez).

However, it is valuable in that it offers an account of the unrelenting campaign by, first, Europeans and, later, white Americans to drive out or exterminate (there is no other word for it, sorry!) the brown people who had occupied this continent for centuries. Wars, slaughters, lynching, executions, mass deportations, incarcerations, the government-sanctioned stealing of land – all of these atrocities were committed against brown people from the Gulf coast to the pacific.

Included in this shameful litany is the inglorious Texas insurrection against Mexico, which had little to do with fighting tyranny and much to do with wanting to keep Texas safe for slavery. Sam Houston was a racist and Stephen F. Austin’s main concern was preserving slavery. The Texas Rangers? The KKK with badges and Stetsons instead of hoods and robes.

The book serves as a reminder that what is happening today along the U.S.-Mexico border is not something isolated, not a recent phenomenon. From the very beginning, brown people in this country, whether we were born here or are recent arrivals, have always been treated as not deserving to be here and numerous campaigns, some more inhumane than others, have been used to keep us out or drive us out. 

Seen in that context, the use of the term concentration camps is more than justified and no amount of feigned outrage by Liz Cheney can change that. 

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On Being a Minority Columnist

A little more than halfway through my first year as a columnist for The Houston Post, I was asked to speak to a local Latino organization. I don’t remember which group it was. In fact, I’d forgotten about the speech until I ran across a faded copy as I was cleaning out some of my files. I like some of what’s here, and some parts make me cringe, like the use of language that would be unacceptable today (Hispanic and Mexican-American instead of Latino or Latina; the automatic use of the masculine pronoun when talking about politicians, etc.) I’m also embarrassed by my arrogance and the preachy tone. But I thought I’d share it with you nonetheless:

I CAN SAFELY say that for the last 8 1/2 months, I have been having the time of my life, doing what I have been wanting to do for long, long time. Writing a column is not half as difficult as I feared it would be and it is a hell of a lot more fun than I ever hoped it would be. 

I’ve become convinced that this truly is a wonderful country. Where else would a white-owned company pay good money to brown boy to give white people piece of his mind? 

Seriously though, one of the greatest joys of this job is knowing that my audience consist of people of all colors. But I am truly touched when I get a call or a letter from a fellow Hispanic who says, “Thanks for expressing exactly what was on my mind.” 

Not all of them agree with me, of course, and I’ve never expected that. One of the scariest things is to hear people say, as one Hispanic told me, I speak for the Hispanics in the city. I do nothing of the sort. I speak only for myself and I would never be presumptuous enough to say that I speak for anybody else. 

I know that, because of my background, because of what I’ve gone through, my feelings and thoughts are shared by many other Mexican-Americans in this town. But I also know that there are many others who have lived through the same kind of things I have lived through and have come out of that experience with completely different opinions about a lot of things. 

And that is the way it should be. For too long, the world has seen us as a monolithic mass with the same emotions and opinions. And for too long, many of us of expect the same things of ourselves, and we somehow even resent it when someone within our community dares to stray from the flock.

I’ve been as guilty of that as anyone else. Having been a Democrat all my life, I’ve often found myself wanting to wring a fellow Hispanic’s neck when he’s told me he’s a Republican. 

But there has always been diversity in our community, and as the years go by, and we become more and more a part of this country, there will be more and more diversity. And that will call for us to have more tolerance of each other, and we will come to a point where we will have to quit questioning the motives of people who disagree with us and accept the fact that they may have valid reasons for their political leanings. 

I think that is one of the best things about being a columnist. Although – as I have made admitted in my column, my roots are in the Democratic Party – and I am proud to call myself a liberal, I have the freedom and the obligation to not be bound by party loyalty. 

That’s why I can criticize Ann Richard and Hugo Berlanga just as easily as I can George Bush and Phil Gramm. And neither am I bound by ethnic or racial loyalty. When I put on my columnist’s hat, I have no more qualms about rapping Román Martínez than I do Kathy Whitmire. 

I’m not saying that it’s not difficult for me to go out for Mexican-American Democratic liberals. It bothers me to have to be critical of Ben Reyes or Martínez or Berlanga, but I don’t think I would be doing my job if I were to remain silent simply because the person I suspect is doing something wrong also has a brown skin. 

SINCE I STARTED this job, I’ve been to accused several times of being “too preachy,“ of having a holier-than-thou attitude, and I’m sorry that’s the impression I have given some people. I am not a saint. I never have pretended to be a saint and I gave up hope a long time ago that I would ever be one. 

I have my faults, just like everyone else. But I am not a politician and the fact that we are all sinners should not prevent us from demanding honesty from public officials. I do not care what a politician does in bed, or with home – or with how many. That’s between him and his wife and his kids. 

I don’t care if he drinks too much and I don’t even care if he uses some drugs on a recreational basis. But I do care if a politician sexually harasses one of his employees and I do care if a politician who screws around goes around making political hay by sanctimoniously criticizing other people’s sexual activities or preferences. 

And I do care if I a politician’s alcohol or drug abuse affects his performance on the job, or if he hypocritically goes around the railing against drug and alcohol abuse. It’s not a politician’s private life that I am concerned about, it’s his public life. It’s how his actions as a politician affect us. 

A Hispanic politician can go out and become a billionaire and I will cheer him on as long as I can be assured that he’s getting rich strictly on his own ability and talent, that he has something of value to sell other than his office and his title and his vote – and the trust of the people who elected him. 

I HAVE ALSO been accused of having a double standard for minority politicians and that I expect more from them then I do for white politicians. My answer is, you better believe I expect more from them! 

And I think we all should. The stakes are simply too high for us to accept Hispanic politicians who are merely good enough. Until we Hispanics are in the majority, the demands on representatives are going to continue to be enormous, and we can’t settle for people who don’t aspire to be better than the rest. 

Think about it: when the time comes for us to have a Hispanic president, would you want that person to be someone like Richard Nixon, or would you rather have someone like Franklin Roosevelt? We all know what the answer is. Well why should it be any different for the city council or the school board, or any of the other offices to which we are electing Hispanics? 

I KNOW SOME of you may be thinking, who appointed him God? The answer is simple: nobody. Actually, the better answer is, I did. I asked for this job. I’ve been asking for it for a long time and finally the Houston Post was smart enough to give it to me last October. And for that, I have to thank those of you who have been putting pressure on both the Post and the Chronicle to do a better job of covering the Hispanic community here. 

Without that pressure, both newspapers would probably still be trying to pretend that Hispanics do not exist in the city. The Post gave me my column, but it was really up to me to decide what kind of column it would be. And I decided a long time ago that if I ever got the opportunity to write a column, I would not waste it, that I would use it to really say something, and not simply take up valuable newspaper space with meaningless phrases. 

And just as I expect more of Hispanic politicians, you have the right to expect more of me. There are way too few Mexican Americans writing columns for major newspapers and I don’t intend to let this opportunity be wasted. If I were to screw up, it would be very easy for newspaper editors to use me as an excuse to deny other Hispanics their own columns. 

There have been many great columnists in this country. What made them great was their willingness to risk their popularity by pointing out the sins of politicians and institutions loved by the people. 

I am not egotistical enough to claim that I’m a great columnist, but I do have enough confidence in my own ability to tell you that I know I am a good one. And as long as The Post continues to let me write this column, I will strive to be good, to provide you with the most honest assessment possible of what is going on.

I am having a ball and as long as it continues to be fun, I will continue to write. I don’t expect you to agree with me all the time or even most of the time. I simply ask that you to give me a chance.

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