Speed Queen, North Dakota, 1983

[In the summer of 1983, I talked my Houston Post editors into letting me travel with a migrant family from Crytal City, my South Texas hometown, to the area between Grafton (where I was born) and Grand Forks, ND, where my family worked during the summers for many years. This is the final installment of the resulting series (more of a mood piece, or thumbsucker), as I filed it. I don’t really know how much of it survived the editing process. At the end is a poem I wrote, based on this piece, which was published in The Acentos Review.]

Grand Forks, ND – The Frontier Airlines DC-9 has just nestled its wheels under its wings. I am flying away from, and looking down at, my past. 

I was going to spend more time in this state, but after yesterday I decided I couldn’t go on. I had spent most of my time here working alongside a migrant family and talking to people. But yesterday I only wanted to look around mainly for things that were here when I was last here. I did not really want to talk to people, although it turned out to be inevitable.

I started in Johnstown, a sliver of a town alongside the Burlington Northern Railroad that looks as if it’s getting ready to close up shop and die. It’s probably been looking this way for a long time. The roofs of a couple of underground potato sheds, built partially beneath the ground to keep the potatoes from freezing in the winter, or collapsing.

It was near here, about half a mile down the small road that intersects County Road 1, the town’s Main Street, that we came for a number of years after I was born. There are 12 houses here, in addition to three vacant mobile homes, and the only business establishment is the combination grocery store/guest station/bar/post office in the center of town. 

In the last year the town lost three residents, but it gained three new ones, so I guess it’s still hanging on. We used to get our grocery stores, gas and mail at the store, which was built in 1886, the year the town was founded.

My father got his beer (Hamm’s or Grain Belt) here, although originally they thought he was an Indian and refused to sell him any alcohol. One of my earliest memories is of going into town with him and waiting patiently while he drank at the bar. He bought me candy to keep me happy. When he finally decided he had enough, we got in the truck and drove back home, but not before he gave me thrills by weaving in and out of the ditch is on each side of the road. 

At the end of the town there used to staid a red-brick two-story schoolhouse that generally houses only two classrooms and five grades, except for the fall when too many migrant kids enrolled and they had to call in a substitute teacher to handle a third class.

I have a good memories of that school: of trading my peanut butter sandwiches for the tomato sandwiches of a local kid named Raymond; of the clean smell of the soap in the basement lavatory – and new word for us; and of getting permission to walk down to the store right before lunch to get my bottle of pop, another new word .

The store is now run by Denise Bigelow, a 32-year-old divorcee, who waited on three customers who entered the store while I was there. One of them, a new father, came to check his unlocked mailbox – half of the 44 boxes were unlocked; it had been that way for a number of years, said Bigelow – and she told him a package for the baby had arrived with the day’s mail. The man walked behind the counter and retrieved his package.

“I suppose you could say we stay open mainly as a public service,” she said “We sure don’t make a profit, but it’s family.”

Bigelow says there isn’t much work around Johnstown anymore. For years farmers planted sugar beets but the soybeans they now grow required no hand labor. Not a single Mexican has come by to rent a mailbox this year. The government’s new payment-in-kind grain program that encourages farmers not to grow wheat has thrown others out of work. 

People are moving to town – Grand Forks – or out of state, she said. 

What kind of people live in area, I ask. 

“Oh, people don’t change,” she said. “It’s still the same stubborn, bigoted, opinionated people, people whose grandparents grew up here. These prairie people don’t travel much and they kind of have their own opinions and keep them forever. They have all this new technology but none of the modern ideas.” 

Bigelow said the last passenger train, which used to bring the mail every day at noon at 5 p.m., ceased running 12 years ago, and Burlington northern has notified the town the freight train will be discontinued this year. I drove down to see if I could find the McCartons, on his farm my family worked for a number of years.

Bigelow had told me their daughter, Mary Ellen, and her husband ran the place, so I was afraid the McCartons might not even be alive. They are. Although retired, they still live on the farm and their daughter’s family lives in the mobile home where the migrant crap used to be. If Bigelow was right about the type of people who live in the area, she was wrong about William and Elfrieda McCarton.

Actually, this is the first time I’ve known these people’s names. We always knew him as El Pelón – the hairless one – because he was bald, and her as La Pelona, even though she had plenty of hair. Of course, they remembered Domingo, my father, and the rest of the family, they said 

He was a hard worker, they all were.

They invited me in and offered me lunch over soup and sandwiches. They talked about the old times, both good and bad. About “John” – Juan Arroyo, the farm foreman for many years and a good friend of my family’s – and all the wonderful things he and the other Mexicans did for the farm. 

“There were many times I would have traded three whites for one beat laborer any day,” said William McCarton.

Added his wife, “If farmers could get the dedicated help we had, the farming situation would be different. John was like a mother to all these beets.”

William McCarton had a stroke several years ago and his hearing and memory are failing him, so she did most of the talking. When he talked, it was about the windbreaks, – or shelterbelts – the long rows of trees – cottonwoods, evergreens, ashes and plums – planted to keep the soil from being blown away. The McCartons had been awarded several soil conservation plaques for his work and he showed them to me. He was pleased I had inquired about the trees.

I told him I remember waking up in our car one autumn morning, before dawn, and seen all these strange lights bobbing around in the dark that later turned out to be workers as they harvested the sweet sugar beets by the illumination of the minors lights he had brought for them to wear on their hats.

“We had to do that,” he said. “There was snow and rain coming – everything– and we had to get these beets out of the ground.”

After lunch they invited me to join them in their car for a tour of the farm .

We drove the block or so to their daughter’s mobile home. The very white, very blonde little girl I remembered was still very white, but her hair had darkened a bit. She was as friendly as her parents and remembered me – or at least she said she did – and my sisters and cousins. They then took me to his family’s “homestead” and said one day Mary Ellen and her husband would build their farm there.

I drove on to Forest River, about four miles away, a town I was more familiar with since we were there after I had grown up some. A sign at the towns entrance said it was the home of Mrs. North Dakota, Rosemary Dakkan.

Gone was the depot, the post office-hardware store and the old restaurant. A new metal building now houses a post office and a restaurant. I tried to talk to the postmaster but he didn’t have much to say. 

The small barber shop was closed, but the River Tavern – where my father used to spend hours while I waited outside in the car – was still there, and next to it with another bar, Tom’s Lounge. The community hall where the Catholic Church held mass and school for the migrants is now the American Legion Hall.

The grocery store where we used to get our food, on credit, was no longer more. Moorewood’s Grocery – Eli Moorewood, the previous owner, died several years ago – is now Norwood’s Grocery. It also now has half its shelf space unused. “No credit” signs were posted on every wall and an unfriendly teen-aged boy sat behind the counter. I bought a soft drink and corn chips and walked across the street to a bench in a small park.

I realized I had absolutely no emotion about Forest River. I remembered it as a cold, less-than- friendly town and I sensed it hadn’t changed at all.

I had one more stop. Halfway between Johnstown and Forest River is a road that leads to where the migrant camp where we lived for about seven summers, along with other families from Crystal City. I wanted to see what was left of that.

Almost nothing was. It’s all been torn down, even the windbreak that used to extend behind the seven houses for half a mile. Only 10 trees have been left standing and, from a distance, the only sigh that people once lived there was a solitary telephone pole, its lifeless wires sagging towards the ground, and a gutted meter peering out towards the rows of sugar beets in the adjacent field.

A new row of trees had been planted. Scattered among them, half buried in the black dirt, I found some artifacts from the lives of people who once called that home: an old pink plastic shampoo bottle, a lump of coal, and a piece of dark brown glass from a Clorox bleach bottle that might have been one of the ones we used as water jugs.

I found, also, a red-white-and-blue plastic “Loopy Ball,” long ago punctured and deflated yet still boasting, “I’m different – throw me and see what I’ll do.” I remembered that ball. It would bounce funny, never ending up where you expected it to.

From two of the remaining trees hung a rusted, sagging wire. At one time it was taut and clean and held its share of a week’s washload.

But the largest, most visible reminder of our having occupied that piece of land was the bottom portion of an old Speed Queen washing machine – lying on its side with its legs sticking out from among the knee-high grass.

It stood out like a tombstone, assuring that that yes, there had once been life there.

I decided I’d had enough. Originally, this trip was going to take me to Wisconsin and Minnesota, and other places where my family had worked but I just couldn’t bring myself to do that. 

I didn’t want to see anymore old washing machines.

Speed Queen, North Dakota

Halfway between Johnstown and Forest River, 

a gravel road leads to where the migrant camp 

once stood. Almost nothing remains: the seven 

crumbling cottages, summer homes for our

extended clan, long ago razed; the weathered

walls and roofs now part of el dompe – a mile

up the road – whose moldy mounds we once 

mined for toys. A windbreak stretching half 

a mile behind the seven shacks is gone, 

except for a few trees, a solitary telephone

pole with flaccid lifeless wires and 

a gutted meter gawking at the rows of sugar 

beets in nearby fields. Half-buried in 

the black earth, I come across a few 

of the things we left behind: 

A plastic Prell Shampoo container 

A shard of dark-brown glass from 

a Clorox bottle. 

A deflated red-white-and-blue 

“Loopy Ball” boasting, 

“I’m different, throw me 

and see what I’ll do.” 

A rusty wire hanging between two 

of the trees, at one time

taut and clean and strong

enough to hold a week’s

load of wash flapping in

the southeasterly breeze. 

A smooth lump of coal, as rock-hard 

as it was the day it was 

delivered to be fed to

the cast-iron wood stove.

And the tub of a rusted Speed Queen 

washing machine – upside down, 

its legs poking out from 

knee-high Johnson grass.

Like an abandoned tombstone, 

the Speed Queen assures me, yes,

here there was once life. A summer 

community existed. Families 

interacted. White smoke floated 

from stovepipes as the aroma 

of carne guizada, frijoles and arroz

wafted from behind screen doors. 

Mothers brought newborns here from 

the hospital in Grafton. Baptisms were 

celebrated with a keg of Hamm’s Beer,

cheese enchiladas and the tinny sound 

of Juan Guerrero’s accordion. News and

gossip arrived on the noon or 5 o’clock train.

Faraway deaths were mourned with a sob 

or a sigh. At dusk, grown-ups treated 

drained bodies to blessed rest after 

12 hours with a hoe as children played 

hide-and-seek – squealing, scurrying, 

seeking sanctuary behind trees or 

in the still-green fields of wheat. 

I smell the smoke, savor the food.

I hear the accordion and the slap-slap

sound of sore hands shaping tortillas. 

I see Tío Adrián’s turtle-shaped Pontiac

and a child, shoulders sagging 

under the weight of two silvery buckets 

of water from the rat-infested well. 

I feel their weight as I pick up the lump

of coal and slip it into my pocket.

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Twenty-five tips for being a good writer of opinion pieces

Sometime ago I was asked to speak to a class about opinion writing. This is what I told them:

  1. Have something to say and don’t force the reader to wait until the last paragraph to find out what it is.
  2. Decide who you are speaking for. (Yourself? A group? An institution?)
  3. Decide what you want to accomplish. (Educate? Entertain? Motivate? Change minds?)
  4. Don’t take a poll to decide what you’re going to say
  5. Don’t take a poll to decide how you’re going to say it.
  6. Feel strongly about what it is you want to say, but not so strongly that you let your emotions overrule all other instincts.
  7. Don’t be afraid to show how strongly you feel about what it is you want to say, but be aware that a person who yells all the time is very likely to be tuned-out by most people.
  8. Say what you want to say in a way that touches people’s hearts and souls.  
  9. There is no better way to touch the readers’ souls than by baring your own soul.
  10. You can persuade by reason, but you can only motivate through emotion.
  11. Talk about your personal experiences but only to help you get your points across.
  12. Be willing to make a fool of yourself but, for heaven’s sake, don’t make it a habit.
  13. Don’t be afraid to antagonize enemies or friends, but do it for a good reason, not just to antagonize.
  14. Beware of facts: they are a good opinion writer’s worst enemy and a mediocre opinion writer’s best friend; they should be used sparingly and with caution.
  15. Quoting other people is good if it strengthens your argument, but bad if you quote others to keep from expressing your own thoughts.
  16. It is not your job to comfort the powerful; it is your job to inflict as much discomfort on them as possible.
  17. Your goal should never be to embarrass or cause pain to private citizens, no matter how stupid they may seem.
  18. Don’t let yourself believe that politicians, entertainers, sports figures, etc., are your friends.
  19. Be passionately in love with the language and don’t be afraid to show it.
  20. Keep it simple.
  21. Each sentence should logically follow the previous sentence and each paragraph should logically follow the previous paragraph.
  22. Reading a column should be like following a trail from the starting point to the end. It should be a smooth and simple path, free of obstacles, detours and roadblocks.
  23.  When you are wrong, acknowledge it right away and apologize profusely and sincerely.
  24.  Mejor un loco y no dos. Always strive to be the voice of reason, the voice of maturity.
  25. Don’t do it if you don’t enjoy it; there are plenty of others who want to do it.

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Something about her was familiar

[Going through some old papers, I came across this column I wrote for The Houston Post in March 1985, more than five years before I got my long-held wish to be a columnist for that paper, and about six years before my mother died. I was working in The Post’s Washington bureau at the time.] 

WASHINGTON – This morning, as usual, I walked from my apartment to the subway, a couple of blocks away, on my way to work. As I rounded a corner, I noticed a woman sitting on a short stone fence near a bus stop. 

She was Latina, short and slightly built. Something about her seemed familiar. But I couldn’t quite figure out what. Then I walked right in front of her and saw that, as she sat there patiently waiting for her bus, she held in her hands a rosary. 

She was praying. 

I knew then what it was about her that was so familiar. It was her posture. I have seen that posture so many times: the slight stoop of the rounded shoulders, the right leg draped over the other, the two hands resting on the lap, caressing and massaging each bead as the lips form the words of the Padre Nuestro and the Dios te Salve

I have witnessed that scene many times in my life, at home. I couldn’t count the number of times I walked into my mother’s bedroom to find her sitting on the edge of her bed, silently saying her rosary. For years she’s been doing it at least once a day. 

She prayed when she was young and busy with work inside and outside the home. Now that she’s retired with little to do but watch her Mexican soap operas on television, she still prays, often while watching TV. I’ve often wondered how God feels about time-sharing with a soap opera. If he resents it, he hasn’t made his feelings known yet. I doubt he’d dare, since he’s given her enough suffering in her life justify a few more of her eccentricities.

When she was younger, her strong hands exerted clear control of the rosary. Today, after almost a decade of suffering from Parkinson’s Disease, the beads rattle a bit as she holds on. Those trembling hands – hands that were strong enough to pick cucumbers in the hot sandy hills of Wisconsin and sturdy enough to top sugar beets in the freezing rains of North Dakota’s Red River Valley – today can barely hold onto a string of beads weighing but a few ounces. 

Yet she prays. She prays for me. She prays for my brother and sisters and their kids and their kids’ kids. She prays for her sisters and brothers, nephews and nieces and in-laws. 

She prays for politicians and the pope. 

She prays for rain for the farmers and the starving Africans and peace for esa pobre gente in Nicaragua, El Salvador, in Lebanon and other lands, though she has no idea where most of them are. 

And when she does, she appears to be completely at peace.

So did that woman I saw at the bus stop. While other commuters impatiently looked to see if the bus were coming in, others worked their crossword puzzles and still others read reports or briefing papers or whatever work they had brought with them, this woman sat quietly, serenely enveloped in her prayers. 

And for a brief moment, as I hurried to the subway station, I was home, and I was rushing away from my mother, as I have done so many times before. 

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Really, Really Quick & Easy Enchilada Sauce

CHEESE ENCHILADAS is one of my favorite dishes, and I (of course!) like them the way my mother prepared them, by dipping a warm corn tortilla in the hot chile sauce she had made with red chile powder, then briefly dipping it in a pan of hot lard then placing grated cheese and raw onions in the center and rolling the tortilla into a tight tasty burrito (any rolled up tortilla is a burrito in my book). She never smothered the burritos in sauce, or even poured a bit of sauce on them. We ate them with a simple salad of lettuce, tomato and onions. Nothing fancy at all.

Over the years, I’ve made lots of enchiladas and, because I’ve become a food snob, I had this stupid notion that I had to make my enchilada sauce from scratch – using whole dried chile peppers. Some of my sauces have been excellent, some have been disasters. Recently, though, I decided to go back to my mother’s way and I made the sauce using chile powder made by McCormick, with chiles anchos, from a jar I bought some time ago.

I posted a picture on FaceBook and I was surprised by the number of people who wrote that they never make their own sauce, that they instead buy it in cans. There’s nothing wrong with that, especially if you have a busy life and don’t want to spend all your time in the kitchen. But if you want to be able to make your own sauce, here’s a recipe I’ve created. It doesn’t take longer that 10 minutes, and it’s a lot cheaper than what you buy in cans. Try it.

Ingredients:

1 tsp    oil

8 oz     hot water or broth

2 tsps  flour

1 tbs    chile powder*

½ tsp   salt**

½ tsp    garlic powder

Instructions:

  1. Heat the oil in a skillet under medium heat
  2. Heat the water or broth
  3. Gradually add the flour and stir rigorously until flour is completely dissolved
  4. Slowly pour the mixture into the pan with the heated oil.
  5. Stir while adding the chili powder.
  6. Continue to stir, adding the garlic powder and salt, until it starts to boil. (If the sauce is too watery, continue to heat until you have the right consistency.)
  7. Turn off heat.
  8. That is all.

This will probably make enough sauce to serve two people (about 8 enchiladas).

* Any brand; I prefer McCormick Gourmet Ancho Chile Pepper, which you can get online if you can’t find it at your grocery story) 

** If you use this sauce with corn chips instead of tortillas, cut the amount of salt by half. 

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Tasty Reading: Denise Chávez’s ‘A Taco Testimony’

I JUST FINISHED “A Taco Testimony,” by New Mexico novelist Denise Chávez, a perfect read for this time of year when the memories of the holidays and all their warmth linger and still pull us back to the things that sustain us, food, family and culture – even in these tragic times.

“A Taco Testimony” is a perfect book to read while you wait for the March release of Houstonian Adán Medrano’s excellent film, “Truly Texas Mexican.” They are both about the love we share for comida, familia y cultura. 

While Chávez is not a Texan, we can still claim her as ours: her mother was born and grew up in West Texas! 

And while there have been many a heated debate over the differences between Texas and New Mexico food, at heart, they are the same, really. As my mother used to say, “Es la misma gata nomas que revolcada.”

If you’re not familiar with Chávez, it’s not too late to get to know her. Her best novel, to me, is “Loving Pedro Infante,” a beautiful story that I’ll probably re-read soon because I loved it so much. (I reviewed the book for the old Houston Post when it came out, but I can’t find a copy of the review.)

“A Taco Testimony,” is not a novel. It is, indeed, a meditation on family, food and culture, as the book’s subtitle claims. Yes, we get recipes of everything from tacos to “capirotada sin vergüenza,” but we get a lot more.

“It’s about the living and the dead and the eternal nourishment that come from being part of a community,” Chávez writes in her ‘Dear Reader’ section. “This is a memoir of food. As such, it is funny, sad, merciful and full of prayers.”

WE LEARN a lot about her family, particularly her patient and saintly mother and her alcoholic father, but we learn a lot more about the generous and forgiving daughter that Chávez is.

The strongest, most moving part of this book is found in the chapter towards the end titled, “Culture with a Capital C.” In it, Chávez bemoans its disappearance. By culture, she means that which allows us – encourages us – to seek to learn about the differences in food, customs and traditions. 

“The lack of culture in contemporary society is manifest,” she writes. “It drives people to be intolerant, unsupportive and offensive. It allows people to hurt, maim and kill one another without reason.” 

BUT DON’T worry: Chávez is not a scold. Far from it. Her book is filled with humor and levity and warmth. You will feel good when you come to the end, just as you feel after feasting on a plate of tacos. And you will wish there were more.

You can order the book from Casa Camino Real in La Cruces, NM.

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2020: Ubo pedo en el baile!

Chona was my mother’s next-door neighbor on Highland Circle in my hometown of Crystal City in South Texas. My mother called her Chonita. 

Chonita was one of my mother’s most frequent visitors after our family moved from our old neighborhood on the other side of town after Urban Renewal decided it would be a good idea to run a street through my bedroom. Chonita was the source of family and neighborhood gossip. 

Anything that happened in Chonita’s family – hurt feelings, spats, outright fights – my mother would hear about it. When things got real bad, Chonita would precede her story with the phrase, “Ya ubo pedo en el baile, Martina!”

Loosely translated, the phrase means, “Things have gone to hell,” or, to put it more colorfully, “The shit has hit the fan.” 

More literally translated, it means, “Shit broke out at the dance (last night),“ although a pedo is a fart, not shit.

The dance reference is not a casual one, for dances meant a lot in the life of small South Texas towns such as Crystal City. Aside from church (and, later, sports events, the weekly dances at El Campestre or La Placita, were the only places where people could socialize in large numbers, where young people could meet and court each other under the watchful eyes of their parents, tíos and tías. 

And because young people could hold each other while dancing and show affection towards to each other, jealousies were bound to be aroused, which meant that sooner or later a fistfight would erupt. Maybe two. Maybe more. 

The fights would all eventually be subdued by friends and relatives (no need to call the cops for these family spats, and security guards? Whoever heard of security guards at dances back then?) and the dancing would continue until the conjunto began packing up its equipment.

The next day the talk of the town would be about the dance. Who danced with whom, who was seen sneaking out to the parking lot with whom, and what poor fool paid the $5 entrance fee only to stand on the sidelines all night because he was too damn timid to ask the pretty girls to dance. (You guessed it: that shy Palomo boy!) 

But the titillating talk was about the fights. So much so that eventually the most common response to the question, “Como estubo el baile?” was, “Muy bonito – nadie se pelió!” (It was beautiful, there were no fights!).

All this to tell you that my reaction to the last 365 days on this the last day of the year is, “Ubo pedo en el baile.” 

It was not a pretty dance. Far from it. The conjunto didn’t know the difference between a bolero and a cumbia and people kept stumbling over each other and falling as they tried to figure out the beat. Meanwhile, the orange-haired lead singer kept insisting the group’s music was nothing less than a big, beautiful sound – the best ever, anywhere. 

And whatever discontent there was would all be over soon, he insisted. It wasn’t, of course, and the dancers finally got together to select a new band, only to have the orange fool charge the vote was rigged and refuse to vacate the stage. 

And that’s where we find ourselves in the last few minutes of this dreadful dance – donde ubo un gran pedo.

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Jimmy Carter: From early racism to one of America’s best presidencies

As I’ve mentioned a few times over the past month, I’ve been enjoying Jonathan Alter’s biography of Jimmy Carter, “His Very Best.” It may be the best book to read in these the waning days of the Trump administration, for in many ways Carter was and remains the ultimate anti-Trump, a decent, honest and honorable man with a deep, deep love and respect for humanity and the world in which we live.

Not long ago I read former Carter aide Stuart Eizenstat’s book of his former boss. I liked that book but it is only an account of the Carter years in the White House, not a complete biography. Alter’s book offers so much more, from his childhood to his third public life as international humanitarian and peacemaker (his first was in Georgia state politics, including the governorship; the second was the presidency).

Two things struck me the most about this book. The first is that Carter was a much more successful president than he has been given credit for. Contrary to popular myth, Carter was not a weak or ineffective president. He accomplished a lot more in his four years in office than any 20th Century president other than FDR and LBJ, and he did most of it while standing strong for his beliefs in honesty, justice and morality. The list of his accomplishments is long. Here are a few: 

  • The Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel
  • The successful transfer of the Panama Canal to Panama.
  • The creation of the Department of Energy and the passage of the nation’s first national energy policy designed to promote conservation and the development of alternative resources (which eventually led to the country’s becoming energy self-sufficient).
  • The appointment of more federal judges in his four years than any other modern president (including the soon-to-be ex-president).
  • The creation of the Department of Education.
  • The injection of human rights as an integral part of international relations.
  • The introduction of the notion of global warming and the need to take action to curb it.
  • With the help of First Lady Rosalyn Carter, elevating mental health as a national concern (much of what Rosalyn pushed for ended up being included in ObamaCare).
  • Giving greater prominence to the Veterans Administration and pushing it to do more for the nation’s veterans.
  • Elevating the role of his vice president, Walter Mondale, making him, for the first time in history, a true partner.
  • After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Carter began a period of military build-up that eventually was to convince Soviet leaders to throw in the towel, leading to the breakup of the USSR.
  • And yes, it was his negotiations with the Ayatollah’s men that led to the release of the hostages, unharmed, minutes after Reagan was sworn in.

There is more. A lot more. Significantly, most of these accomplishments came in the face of a very negative press, which went out of its way to portray Carter as weak, as a wimp – an ineffectual fool.

And, of course, there is his post-presidency. Again, with Rosalyn, he has racked up success after success in promoting human rights, reducing homelessness, eradicating diseases, ensuring honest elections abroad, and facing down corrupt strongmen in third-world countries. 

Alter offers a thrilling account of when Bill Clinton sent Carter, former Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn and Collin Powell to Haiti to negotiate with the island’s dictator, an army general. With U.S. forces on ships off the island, ready to invade if the general didn’t step down, Carter refused to abandon negotiations even as his Secret Service protectors and military leaders warned that if Carter and the others didn’t leave, they could be captured by the Haitians and held as hostages to prevent an invasion. The invasion never came because Carter was able to talk the strongman into stepping down.

Was Carter perfect? Far from it. Carter had many flaws, chief among them his pride, his certainty that his way was the right way. He was a terrible communicator, and he knew it, but he refused to do anything about it because he believed substance, not showmanship, would carry the day.

Carter was indeed, a flawed individual. Which brings me to the second thing that struck me about his book, the fact that in his early years in politics, Carter turned his back on the struggle for civil rights and on those who continued to be oppressed by Jim Crow laws. 

The future human rights champion began his political career in the early 1960s, as a state senator, in a state that was a major civil rights battleground. Yet Carter never spoke publicly against the Old South mentality and its suppressive laws and mores. Carter and Martin Luther King Jr. never met; there is no record of his ever seeking a meeting with the civil rights leader.

Even worse, as a candidate for governor, Carter relied heavily on code-word campaigning to assure racist white voters that he was not their enemy. And he played footsies with both George Wallace and Lester Maddux to keep them from opposing his candidacy. 

This was an ugly, ugly chapter in the life of Jimmy Carter, one that ended a few minutes after he was sworn in, when he declared in his inaugural address, that the time for racial segregation in Georgia was over. He went on to govern as an enlightened Southerner, and that served him well when he ran for president.

What amazes me is that, despite his distasteful early civil rights record, Carter managed to win the Democratic nomination in 1976 and go on to become president. Would a Democratic politician with such a record be able to do that today?

I don’t think so, not in this era of 24-hour punditry, relentless media scrutiny and unforgiving purity tests. Not in an age when redemption, forgiveness, renewal, etc., are bad words.

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Recipe for Capirotada (Mexican Bread Pudding)

What you will need:

  • A loaf of French bread, sliced about ¾ to 1 inch thick, toasted. (You can use any kind of bread, really, but I think it tasted better with French)
  • One cone of piloncillo, cut into small pieces. Piloncillo is a raw form of pure cane sugar. It usually comes in the shape of a cone and you can probably find them wherever Mexican goods are stocked in your supermarket. At my HEB they are with the dried chiles and corn husks (for tamales) in the produce center. You can always order it online. Don’t buy GOYA. If you can’t find piloncillo, use brown sugar. 
  • Raisins. I’d say anywhere between three-quarters of a cup to a cup.
  • Chopped pecans, about three quarters of a cup. More if you are crazy for pecans. (Some people use peanuts, others use walnuts; I’ve only made it with pecans.
  • Three or four sticks of Mexican cinnamon. 
  • One-half to one whole stick of butter, salted or unsalted.
  • About a cup of grated cheese. I mostly use cheddar of Monterey Jack, but I’ve tried it with Gruyere and other cheeses. I think the sharper the cheese the better.
  • About a quarter cup of sliced almonds (optional)
  • Also optional: about 3 tablespoons of cocoa powder.
  • About a quart of water, maybe a bit more.
  • Some ground cinnamon and white granular sugar, and a tiny bit of salt, for sprinkling on top before putting in the oven.

The story:

There are probably as many recipes for this Mexican dessert as there are Mexicans. In our household, it was considered a Lenten dish, especially for Holy Week, but I like it year-round. I prepare it the way my mother used to make it, with a few notable exceptions. She made hers (and my sister still does), very, very mushy. So much so that I never touched the stuff in my finicky youth). Mine is still mushy, but not as much. More soggy than mushy. And, because I place it in the oven, it comes out with a nice crunch crust.  

How to do it:

  • In a deep pot, heat the water with the cinnamon sticks and the piloncillo pieces. Stir until the piloncillo has dissolved. Allow to come to a boil for a few minutes then turn off the heat and add the butter and the cocoa, if using, stir until all the butter is melted and the cocoa has dissolved.
  • In a wide pie pan (I like to use a heavy glass pie pan) or a bread pan, place a layer of the toasted bread at the bottom. Cut up pieces of bread to fill in any spaces between the slices.
  • Spread some cheese and raisins and pecans over the layer of bread.
  • With a dipper or ladle, carefully pour some of the piloncillo water over the layer until the bread is lightly soaked. You shouldn’t soak it completely because as you build up layers, the water will seep down and thoroughly soak the bread. 
  • Repeat steps 1, 2 and three until you’re reached the top or you’ve run out of bread. Over the top layer of bread, place and extra helping of the raisins, pecans and cheese. Top with almond slices, if you’re using. 
  • Sprinkle cinnamon powder and sugar all over the top, and then sprinkle a tiny, tiny amount of salt over that (salt is optional).
  • Place in the oven at about 350 degrees and allow it to bake for about 15-20 minutes. Watch it carefully so it doesn’t burn. When the top forms a beautiful shiny golden brown crust, it is time to take it out of the oven.

You can serve it warm right out of the oven, cold, or reheated. Goes great with vanilla ice cream. 

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The Palomo List of Best 2020 Books:

The New York Times is about to release its list of the best books of 2020, so I thought I’d beat it to the punch. Here’s my list of the best 14 books published this year (in no particular order):

Fiction: 

  1. Redhead by the Side of the Road, a novel by Anne Tyler.
  2. The Lying Life of Adults, a novel by Elene Ferrante
  3. Miss Jane, a novel by Brad Watson
  4. The Nightwatchman, a novel by Louise Erdrich
  5. A Long Petal of the Sea, a novel by Isabel Allende
  6. Memorial, a novel by Houstonian Bryan Washington
  7. A Peculiar Kind of Immigrant’s Son, short stories by El Paso native Sergio Troncoso.

Nonfiction:

  1. The Undocumented Americans, by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio.
  2. His Very Best, a Jimmy Carter biography by Jonathan Alter
  3. In the Dream House, a memoir by Carmen Maria Machado
  4. Children of the Land, a memoir by poet Marcelo Hernandez Castillo
  5. On the Plain of Snakes, a travelogue of today’s Mexico by Paul Theroux
  6. Pelosi, biography by Molly Ball
  7. Mad at the World, a biography of John Steinbeck by William Souder
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Recipe for a Deliciously Rich Salsa

I’VE BEEN making my own salsas for years but I’ve never bothered to write down any recipes, primarily because the recipe changes each time I make it. But friends have been pressing me to write down the recipe, so here it is. This recipe will give you a rich, thick dark -red salsa with an intriguing slightly smokey taste. It is relatively mild. If you prefer it spicier, add another chipotle chile.

  1. Place two tomatoes and four tomatillos in boiling water and let boil until tomatillos start to soften. Place them in your blender. Do not get rid of the water.
  2. On a hot skillet, place two ancho chiles and two guajillo chiles. Leave them there for a couple of minutes on each side, then place them in the hot water and let them soak for a few minutes.
  3. Place the chiles in a blender.
  4. Place four garlic cloves and a sliced half onion on the hit skillet and leave them there for a few minutes, until the onion becomes translucent. Add them to the blender.
  5. Add half a cup of chopped cilantro to the mixture in the blender.
  6. Add one chipotle pepper from a can of chipotle in adobo.
  7. Add the juice of half a lime and a quarter cup of vinegar and some salt.
  8. On the still-warm skillet, heat one teaspoon of cumin seeds and an equal amount of oregano. Let them toast for a bid and add to the blender.
  9. I think that’s it. Purée just long enough to get a nice chunky salsa consistency. You’re welcome.
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