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?


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 Tule, 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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Recipe for Calabacita (Zucchini-or-Other-Green-Summer-Squash-Squash Casserole)

SOME PEOPLE call this dish Calabacitas, but I grew up using the singular version of the name. Really, the name matters little. It’s about the ingredients and how you cook them.

The name, of course, is the diminutive form of “calabaza,” which in Spanish means both squash and pumpkin (or gourd), although, my dictionary tells me, squash can also be “cidracayote,”  a strange word. Even stranger would be “cidracayotita,” wouldn’t it! 

Calabacita soup (with no meat).

The use of the suffixes “ito” and “ita” doesn’t always indicate a diminutive size, though. Often, it adds a nuance of affection, or it softens the meaning of the word. I think that is the case in this instance. When we say “calabacita,” we are not necessarily speaking of a small squash; we are simply telling the world how dear this dish is to us. And that is certainly what it is to me. Calabacita, mole and chorizo are my favorite among the many delicious dishes my mother used to make. 

My mother always made this dish with either chicken or pork. I’ve heard of others using beef but I’ve never tried it. I’ve made it with shrimp (I imagine it would work nicely with scallops also; I must try that one of these days) and lately, I’ve been leaving the meat out altogether. The richness of the flavors of the squash interacting with the corn and together flirting like crazy with the spices is so beautiful that you don’t even realize you’re having a meatless dish. 

OK, SO HERE’S how you do this:

Place some cooking oil in a deep frying pan and place it on a burner set at medium heat. Take a quarter of a white onion, or slightly more, and chop it up and place it in the pan to sauté, along with three of four garlic cloves, chopped finely. Of course, you can use yellow onion, if you prefer. I always use white for the same reason I use Tide and Colgate: because that’s what my mother used.

If you don’t have any whole garlic, don’t worry about it. You can always add garlic later, when you add the other spices (you can use garlic powder if you don’t have whole garlic).

If you’re going to use meat, add it to the pan at this point (after you’ve sprinkled salt and pepper all over it) and let it brown, then add the zucchini and/or squash, which you have already diced or sliced (the smaller the cubes and the thinner the slices, the quicker it will cook). I prefer to use both green and yellow squash, mainly because I like how the yellow looks; it keeps it from getting too monotonously green. How many, you ask? I’d say at least two yellow, two zucchini and two other green squash. This will give you a hearty dish, enough for several people and, maybe, if you’re lucky, enough for leftovers too. This is one of those dishes that tastes even better when reheated.

Add salt and pepper. Health nuts won’t like this, but this dish requires more salt than your average Mexican dish. I don’t know why. It just does, and I don’t argue with it.

I’LL PROBABLY forget so I’ll tell you right now: keep stirring the pot constantly throughout. Also, the squash has a lot of moisture, which will be released as you cook, but if the meat starts to stick to the bottom of the pan, add about a half-cup of water. 

Now chop up about half a cup of red or yellow red pepper and add it to the mixture. You can use green peppers but I like red or yellow (or orange) for the same reason I like to add a yellow squash: aesthetics! 

Peel and chop or slice five or six tomatillos and toss those in. Tomatillos are optional but I’ve found that they add a nice tangy taste to the dish, so I try to use them whenever possible. 

If you have cilantro lying around, take about a quarter cup and chop it finely before adding it to the mixture. If you don’t have any, don’t worry about. I love cilantro but sometimes it can be overrated. 

Add one medium tomato, chopped. If you don’t have fresh tomatoes, use canned tomatoes. I sometimes like to make this dish a bit more Italian by adding a whole can of chopped tomatoes along with a good helping of chopped fresh basil.

I told you not to forget to stir!

NOW IT’S TIME for the spices. Take about a teaspoon of cumin seeds and about two tablespoons of Mexican oregano and place it in a molcajete with a bit of water and ground to a nice, smooth, slightly watery paste. If you forgot to add garlic at the beginning, add the garlic cloves to the other spices before grinding them up. (If you have any dried epazote in your spice rack, toss some of that in also.) Pour all of this into the pan and stir to mix well. After a few minutes of cooking, taste some of the juice and if it seems a bit bland, add more cumin. As far as I’m concerned, you can never have too much cominos. 

Now add a can of sweet corn, along with its juice. I’ve used fresh corn and I like the taste but I’m not a big fan of the messy process of getting the kernels off the cob. It’s just not worth it to me, but if you’re a purist, have at it.

Other things you can add but you don’t have to:

  • Sliced mushrooms.
  • One or two whole Serrano chiles (make sure they don’t burst in the cooking process or you’ll end up with a very spicy dish; just leave them whole and serve them to the person in your family or party who likes to brag about liking his food hot. Yes, it’s usually a male!)
  • Red pepper flakes.
  • One chipotle pepper from a can, chopped finely. (I wouldn’t use all three – Serranos, pepper flakes and chipotles. Choose one.)
  • Sliced black olives. Not too many. You don’t want to overwhelm the dish with them.

OK, THAT ABOUT does it for ingredients. Now it’s simply a matter of letting it all cook and simmer until the squash is mushy. Or “mooshy,” as Pati Jinich says! If you feel or hear a crunch when you bite into a piece of zucchini, you haven’t cooked it enough.

Once it’s cooked, let it sit for about 15 minutes to cool off a bit, then serve. If it’s soupy, use bowls. Enjoy with either corn or flour tortillas (I prefer corn). If you like, sprinkle some Parmesan cheese over it.

If you don’t eat it all, here’s what you can do with the leftovers:

  • Reheat it and eat it, in a taco, or with a spoon or fork.
  • Make a pie out of it, using the double frozen pie shells you can find at HEB. Just make sure you drain it well before you place in the pie shell.
  • Remove all the meat (if you used meat) and place it in the blender along with some crema mexicana or milk or yogurt and blend until you have a nice, smooth creamy soup that you can serve either cold or hot.
  • Cook some bell pepper halves in the oven or in boiling water. Let them cool a bit then fill them with warm calabacita then top with whatever cheese you desire. Place in the oven until the cheese melts.
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Poem: Las Virgenes

To commemorate National Poetry month, here is the last of the four poems published in the Fall 2018 issue of Fifth Wednesday Journal.

Las Virgenes

Las Vírgenes

La Virgen de San Juan del Vallewas my madrina

She baptized me. Juan Diego stood in for Joseph.

She gave me candy and cookies whenever I visited. 

She and Victor, her second husband, would take 

my sisters and me to see movies. Her favorite

was “Around the World in Eighty Days”  

because it featured Cantinflas and he made her

laugh even if he too spoke only English.

La Virgen went unnoticed until the lights were dimmed

and her halo began to glow in the darkened theater.

It was embarrassing and each time my sisters and I

swore we’d never return, but we liked the free movies.

My parents wanted La Virgen de Guadalupeto baptize

me but she had no papers and could not cross the border. 

Juan Diego did immigrate, eventually, and he became

my uncle when he married Tía Rosa. He lured her 

from Fermín while Fermín was out in the fields cutting

spinach. Fermín looked like Hitchcock but walked 

like Charlie Chaplain. Se la robó, my grandmother

would chuckle: he stole her away from poor Fermín.

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Poem: María Félix Gave Me Mal de Ojo

To commemorate National Poetry Month, here is the third of four of my poems published in the Fall 2018 issue of Fifth Wednesday Journal. This is one in a series of poems about my childhood neighborhood in which I write about some of the real people (and real events) while imagining them as Mexican legends.

María Félix Gave Me Mal de Ojo

When she wasn’t making movies, María Félix lived

across the street from us. I visited her often. 

She was kind and always had candy around.

One day I mentioned I’d learned a poem 

for Doña Herminia’s escuelitaand she begged me 

to recite it for her. I didn’t want to, but I couldn’t 

say no to this beloved Mexican matinee idol 

with Bette Davis curls, so I delivered the poem 

for her with as much passion as I could muster. 

When I finished, María Felix laughed heartily 

and, eyebrows arching like seagull wings, 

she clapped and murmured, ¡Ay, que bonitoQue lindo!   

The next morning I had a fever. I didn’t go 

to school and stayed in bed all day, the next day, and 

the day after that. When mamátold her about me, 

María Félix exclaimed, Pobre niño, he recited 

his beautiful poem for me and I laughed 

and I applauded with joy but I failed to touch him!So

María Felix rushed to my bedside with a brown egg 

from one of her backyard hens. She passed it 

over my burning body as Padre Nuestros

glided from her pouty ruby lips. I blushed 

when I became aroused as she passed it near my crotch, 

but she pretended not to notice. When done, she asked 

for a glass of water. I thought she would drink it. 

Instead, she cracked the egg into the glass and left it 

on a bedside stand. She kissed me on the forehead, 

then left, saying she had a new movie shoot                                            

near Durango, with Jorge Negrete. 

I lay there and stared at the egg for hours until

its golden eye rose lazily to the top then begin 

to rise, like a balloon. It hovered above the glass 

for a few seconds then sailed towards me. 

I reached to grab, not really knowing what I’d do 

with it, but it darted away, like a hummingbird, 

just out of reach, where it floated. And then it winked. 

Once. Twice. 

And, like a moth, my fever fluttered out the window 

into the night. I never saw María Felix again.

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