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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Recipe: Chile Colorado de la Cocinera de la Casa O’Leary

I GOT THIS salsa recipe from the beautiful and generous cook at Casa O’Leary in San Miguel de Allende. I never asked her what she called it, so I decided to name it after her. I’ve made it many times but I had never taken the time to write down the ingredients, until this afternoon. It is a very easy recipe to prepare and the slightly lemony taste is superb.

It is not too hot (spicy), so if you want something spicier, do not remove the seeds from the dried chiles. If that’s still not hot enough, try adding one or two dried peppers that have a more powerful kick. You’ll note that the recipe does not call for either tomatoes or onions. Do not fret. You do not need them. Adding either would mess with the delicate balance of flavors. 

Ingredients:

1 lb      tomatillos (about 8 large ones)

2          dried chiles anchos

2          dried chiles guajillos

3          large garlic cloves

1 tsp    salt

  1. Slit open the anchos and guajillos and remove the seeds.
  2. Remove the husks from the tomatillos and boil them until they lose their bright green color and turn yellowish. (Or, until they’re moochi, as Pati Jinich would say!)
  3. Heat a couple of cups of water in a small pan.
  4. Place the chiles and the garlic cloves on a hot comal or cast-iron skillet.
  5. Remove the chiles after a couple of minutes or so, once you see they are starting to turn darker and shrivel a bit. Do not burn them.
  6. Place the chiles in the hot water and let them soak for about five minutes.
  7. Place the tomatillos in a blender. Add the garlic cloves and salt.
  8. Once the chiles are nice and soft, place them in the blender also.
  9. Puree the ingredients until you have a nice, smooth creamy sauce. If it’s too thick, add a bit of the water in which you soaked the chiles and puree again.

Note 1: In our home we called tomatillos “tomates de fresadilla.” I never learned why, but I imagine it has to do with the small seeds that look like a strawberry’s seeds (fresa: strawberry). In Mexico they are called tomates, whereas the regular tomatoes, which we call tomates, are called jitomates. One of these days I’ll do some research to find out why.

Note 2: We never used the word salsa in our house. It was always chile. Likewise, we always used colorado for red, not rojo.

Note 3: You can probably use this chile as a base for enchilada sauce. It’s great for dipping chips, or over huevos rancheros.

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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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