Paving the road to nowhere, one word at a time.

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Location: Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico

American born, living in Mexico since 1992.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Curse Of The Gypsies

We have a dog now, this is such an American thing to do; to have a dog in the house, it reminds me of my youth. The dog is a puppy, some sort of a poodle, it is relatively smart except it tends to pace underneath my feet which means that I step on it sometimes. And I feel so bad about that, I pick the puppy up and console it for at least fifteen minutes and apologize. And then I feel like an idiot. It then dawns on me that all the dog has to do to get a little bit of attention is to plant itself strategically underneath my feet and hope for the best.

Then he's in my arms. I think that was his plan all along.

This dog was supposed to be my daughter Anna's. I was outvoted, I see no need for a dog in the house, but since the boy moved out I find myself on an island. My wife and my daughter outvote me often. In the old days I could at least get a tie and buy one of the girls off. Those days are gone. So now, we have a dog, and I find myself under his spell. This is what happens. I am taking care of her dog.

"He attacks my feet," Anna says, "I hit him in the nose and then he barks at me."

"He thinks you're playing with him. See how he doesn't bite my feet? Notice that?"

"Yeah, but why?"

"Because I ignore him. You hit him in the nose. He thinks it's a game."

Anna is still going to hit him in the nose when he bites at her feet and the dog will still bite her feet and not mine. And if we both leave at the same time and return at the same time, the dog will run to me first. Dogs are Gypsies. They don't bite the hand that feeds them and they know how to work you. I gave the Goddamn dog bologna the other night. He knows how to work me. This is what happens.

* * * *

Can't say about suburban San Diego, but in Tijuana you change neighbors like you change socks. When the newest ones moved in next door, we all raised a collective eyebrow. First thing they did was to post a hand-written card advertising that they read tarot and palms. Brujos or brujas, warlocks or witches, perhaps. It was hand-written with black marker on orange paper. An early Halloween.

We still aren't certain how many people live there. I had one hell of a time figuring out their native language, and I am fairly gifted, linguistically speaking. It wasn't hard to overhear them since they enjoyed yelling at each other. At first, I thought they were fighting, but eventually I came to understand that this is simply how they communicate. They yell. Okay. So long as they aren't throwing stuff, I can manage.

"My friend told me to be careful with them because they could be terrorists, they speak Arabic," Anna told me.

"It isn't Arabic. I know just enough Arabic to know it isn't Arabic. I don't know what it is, but they aren't terrorists and it isn't Arabic," I said, trying to reassure her. Not certain it worked.

For the record, I am fluent in English and Spanish. I also understand Italian quite well, surprisingly well. Also understand enough French and Portuguese to be able to translate in a pinch, and while German, Russian, and Polish would be failures on a test, I can actually tell the difference between the three. Same with Arabic and Farsi. Don't ask me why, I have no answer.

So their language then became a bit of an obsession, right?

* * * *

I like the dog best when it curls itself up in a corner of the living room and naps. It does that a lot when I'm the only one here. And the dog has fleas, and it doesn't matter how often you bathe or powder it, there are fleas. Rocio doesn't like that, and so I remind her that she cast the deciding ballot concerning us having a dog. The fleas do not bite me (nor do mosquitoes) and they don't bite Anna, we are apparently immune. But fleas love Rocio. I have no sympathy, she should have thought of that before she voted in favor of the dog.

This is what happens.

The strays here - and there are plenty - carry parvo like so much small luggage, so we can't house-train the puppy quite yet. He's only had one of the three shots he'll need, and we'll also need to get him fixed, I don't want to see him humping some stranger's leg. Going outside is not an option for a good while, right? Until then, he gets free food, free housing, and gets to poop wherever he sees fit. Wanna own a dog?

His name is Simon, at least he got a respectable name. If you've named your dog poofy or snowflake or something similarly ridiculous, then you probably shouldn't be trusted naming children. My father taught me well. The family cat was named Fred, the family dog, Tiger. Respectable names. I'm not certain that most dogs in Mexico are even named. They're simply turned out here, like horses on a ranch. Simon will not be turned out. Simon is the exact reason I didn't want a dog in the first place. There is some sort of voodoo at work, and I am a victim of it.

* * * *

The initial meeting with the Gypsies wasn't so swell, I was in a rotten mood. Sitting in my office, the power went out, and I lost a couple-thousand words, and then it came back. I sighed. Just as the computer booted back up, the power went out again, and I stormed out of my office. Rocio was staring at a blank television screen. Twilight had just turned it over to evening, and I went outside and the Gypsies were there. I marched out around to corner, more Gypsies, this time the men, and they were flipping switches trying to figure out why they had no electricity.

They were flipping my switch on and off, the main breaker to my house which is strategically located next to theirs. I yelled at them in English and in Spanish. Spanish worked. They stopped flipping switches and I stormed back inside, content that I once again had the magic juice, and to hell with them and their problems. Just as I sat in my office, the juice ran out again. Now I was upset.

Rocio's attempt to block me at the door was feeble, at best, as I was now armed with a flashlight and mad as a hornet. Anna had that oh holy hell dad's pissed just get out of the way look on her face, as she grabbed up the puppy. The Gypsy women were already apologizing by the time I took my third step onto the sidewalk. I waved them off. I wanted the patriarch, his fingers were all over it. I turned the corner and he was there. Apologizing.

I hit the switch and shined it into the box, a conclave of meters and breakers for a dozen of us all in one place around the corner. I focused the beam on my breaker. It was turned off.

"Stop touching my breaker," I said in Spanish. The patriarch was waving his hands wildly.

"Sorry," he said in English, with a wild accent making it barely understandable, "I don't know which is mine."

"There," I said. I pointed at the one next to mine. "I don't want you to apologize, just leave my breaker alone, that one is yours and this one is mine."

I stormed back inside. Rocio started to argue with me, and we briefly discussed my lack of patience. Her point was that I didn't have much with the Gypsies. My point was that they needed to invest in a flashlight. That argument will never likely be resolved.

* * * *

I just gave the dog some more lunch meat, so now we're out. He looked like he needed it. Anna went to some art exhibit. The dog sits at my feet, content, scratching at the fleas every so often. When I go into the kitchen to make myself another bloody Mary, he follows me. I'm guessing it's in hope of more lunch meat. I put that on my grocery list. Bologna for Simon. This is what happens.

I felt bad about my first meeting with the Gypsies, so the next day when I ventured out to the little store across the street, I asked one of the Gypsy women in passing if their electricity was okay. She smiled and said it was. When I came back and went inside, they were yelling again. I don't know why they yell at each other. I'm not going to ask.

I found out that their language is a Romani Caló, that most Gypsies no longer speak a pure Romani, that they have incorporated some sort of other language inside of the traditional Romani. In this case it's Spanish. I pick up about every third or fourth word, it's quite fascinating. A recent conversation in that little store with the owners revealed even more.

Apparently, they've been visited more that once by the government of Mexico, and they were threatened with jail time if their kids weren't enrolled in school here. I don't think the Mexican government can jail anyone for not enrolling their children in school, but I find it interesting that the kids don't go. They speak very good Spanish. They seem like normal kids. There isn't anything to tip off the fact that they are kids from a Gypsy family.

Apparently, the Gypsies often try to get stuff for free at that little store. That's what I'm told. Subsequent conversations I've had with the patriarch indicate that he makes his living on a computer. Figures. That orange paper with black letters has been replaced with a professionally printed banner. Tarot Egypcio, palm readings, and so on. Don't much want to know what he uses the computer for.

Rocio just came back from the sobre ruedas, the open-air market that assembles every Sunday up the hill from this place. She brought back a dog carrier. No idea what that means. I warned her to wash it down good with some bleach before she sticks Simon inside. I somehow feel compelled to take care of that freeloading dog.

And the last visit to market brought a comment from the owner of it, he suggested that the Gypsies wouldn't be around for too much longer, that apparently they don't pay the rent regularly. I couldn't say whether that's true or not. I know that no one sells a bleach that will help that situation, if it's true. And it would be a damned shame if it was. It isn't every day you get the curse of a puppy underneath your feet.

Isn't a doubt in my mind the Gypsies had everything to do with it.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Either Side Of The River

It starts slowly here in Baja. The sky, normally blue with an occasional puff of a cloud, fills with more clouds, and the wind comes up. People bundle up in their coats if they brought one, and continue walking to wherever. It becomes noticeably overcast and people wonder why they didn't witness the change. Everything is gradual up to this point.

Small drops then begin to fall, merely a nuisance at first, but soon there is enough water to mix with the dry dust on the ground, and small muddy patches become exposed. The occasional pedestrian slips and skates along, and the drops become larger and quicker, and anyone with an umbrella employs its use. Water begins to pool in the once-dusty streets and passing cars avoid deeper puddles. There are about as many cars as there are pedestrians here.

Again, without fanfare, the sky has become angry and dark, and quickly the rain begins in earnest. Almost instantly water fills the gutters until they overflow, out onto the main boulevard, and pedestrians crossing any street soak their shoes and even their pants up to their shins. They stay to the inside walking on the sidewalks so that the water spray from passing cars cannot reach them. They hurry along now, pressed by the possibility of something worse yet to come.

When it gets really bad, streets running north and south on either side of the Tijuana River become small and powerful rivers themselves, bringing with them everything from large rocks and small boulders to used tires to all sorts of trash and tree branches. Cars moving east and west along the boulevard are often blocked. Even large vehicles that try and get through the rushing wall of water coming down from the hills above will be swept unceremoniously aside, saved from further disaster by a chain-link fence or a strip-mall parking lot light pole. At their worst, such storms claim lives.

* * * *

When it rains in Baja, I think back many several years ago to a time when I was struggling to learn the language here and when Rocio's father felt comfortable enough with me to take me to a ravine up the hill where some of his work-mates lived. It was Sunday, their only day off, and the ravine was littered with flimsy shacks strewn about with no planning. The idea was to build a shack where one could find or grade a small flat lot. On these small flat lots, whatever material could be found was used to make something resembling a shack, and in the shack there were curtains separating sleeping quarters into two or three sections.

No one was from Tijuana, everyone had come from somewhere else, ostensibly to cross into the United States of America to look for seasonal migrant work, but they decided to stay in Tijuana and work instead; or else, they were simply waiting for the right time to head north. We sat in front of one particular shack and shared Tecates while the wife of one man swept out the inside of their shack, earth floors. Their children were clean and appeared healthy, dressed nicely in slightly worn but very clean clothing. It humbled me greatly.

The recent rains here have been heavy at times, and that always makes me wonder whatever became of those people.

Where shacks once stood, houses are eventually built, and even in the many ravines that hug either side of the Tijuana River, either the government or a developer carves out dirt roads and improves unimproved and ungraded lots. Many of those areas now feature reasonably well-built dwellings with cement block the popular building material of choice. Why cement block? Money.

Since Tijuana began to develop, banks would not lend to anyone wishing to build a wooden structure. Not only does wood burn, but wooden structures can be disassembled and moved should the owners find themselves down on their luck and unable to make the payments. The cement block dwelling is a guarantee to the banks that even should the owner default, there is something tangible for the bank to recover and sell again. And often times, the banks do just that. This is what happens.

* * * *

When I came down to live in Tijuana about twenty years ago, I brought a pregnant wife, two kids, all of our possessions, and two dogs with us. The dogs - which I purchased when they were puppies - were brothers, both of which survived parvo. Neither survived for very long in Mexico. The dominant dog was the first to go, when we lived briefly on the north side of the Tijuana River, he escaped the backyard and was hit by a car. Again, this is what happens.

I buried him about five feet down, it was the hardest I've ever had to dig in my life. We were several hundred feet above the river, yet the soil was all hard clay once you dug six inches down. No amount of water softened it, and this was my first clue about rain in Tijuana. I pulled out perfectly round rocks, rocks that were undoubtedly shaped thousands of years earlier when the Tijuana River was broad and vast. I went through two shovels that day.

In the winter of 1993, before Anna was born, it was an El Niño year and the storms came like waves of blood-hungry soldiers. Luckily, we moved to the South side of the river before Anna was born, before the biggest storm that hit Baja during that cycle. The death toll from that storm will never be known. The remaining dog was never the same after that, I came home from work one day and found him dead in his doghouse. I would like to think that he died of loneliness.

Again, I dug deep, hitting hard clay, and struggled once again to reach five feet down. That taught me two lessons in life, that no matter which side of the river, the ground remains the same; and that while many say that the lack of water in Baja is a big problem, I remain convinced that even a little bit of water here is often times too much. The water on the hillsides of the river take the loose silt to the bottom of the hills, and no water is ever able to soak into the soil. Once at the bottom of the hillsides the silt eventually makes its way into the Tijuana River, and mingles with seawater once it is dumped into the Pacific Ocean.

* * * *

Everyone in Tijuana has a cellular telephone, myself excluded, even the children. When I think about that family that lived up in the ravine in the hills, I imagine that if they remained in Tijuana then they have more suitable housing. Even if they are still in that shack, I will lay odds that everyone there owns a cell phone. Twenty years ago, even for expensive residences near boulevards, there was a waiting period of three months minimum just to get a land line. The communications systems were still analog here back then, maybe up to fifteen years ago or so.

The water problem is slow to change, unlike communications here. The city tries to build proper drainage, but it's an impossible task to fight against nature and the type of ground you have to deal with here. The Tijuana River is now concrete-lined from the Pacific Ocean all of the way back to the Rodriguez Dam, and the drainage has improved in certain areas. But the hard clay and the unpredictable flow and the lay of the land will never change.

I have never owned another dog since the first two died for more than a few days. When we lived up the hill, a small stray pup - a mutt - wandered in front of our house and we took him in. We fed and watered him and he responded nicely. Then he caught parvo. We took him down the hill and paid the veterinarian to put him out of his misery, and paid the vet extra to save me a busted shovel or two. At some point when we build a house south of here and closer to the coast, I might get another dog. Even if I'm unlucky with it, the ground is much more forgiving there. Maybe even, so is the rain.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Dirty Old Town

I met my love by the gas works wall
Dreamed a dream by the old canal
I Kissed my girl by the factory wall
Dirty old town
Dirty old town

Ewen MacColl did not write Dirty Old Town in 1949 about Ireland, in that while this great big giant love of Irish bands seems to have elevated the tune to the point where people think it’s Irish in origin, fat chance. (Fat chance, of course, being Scottish, right? MacColl’s folks were Scottish, fat chance eh?) The town that MacColl was referencing in that great tune was Salford. Salford was a part of the industrial revolution in England, now Britain. Britain used to make a lot of stuff. So did the United States of America. That all pretty much went away, this is what happens. So, MacColl grew up in Salford. The government thought he was a communist. His father had a hell of a time finding work because the entire country blacklisted him. Bastards. I know how that feels.

I’ve been blacklisted a time or two.

I don’t care what people think about me, I reckon I’ve done some pretty good time on this planet and I don’t need anyone’s approval. I made lots of stuff between then and now. By the time I met Rocio, I didn’t much care about carving out my mark on some big tree. I remember the day that Anna was conceived. Rocio pointed to a spot on the floor of the house we were about to rent there in Rowland Heights. I didn’t argue. Anna won’t read this, but she was made right then and there. Purposefully. We talked it over and decided to have a kid. And we did. Fat chance, eh? True, all true, I promise.

Dirty old town, dirty old town.

* * * *

“God,” I started. “This is the third time I’ve asked you for anything. Just let her be healthy and let her live. I promise I’ll do my best to raise her good. That’s all I can promise.”

Clouds are drifting across the moon
Cats are prowling on their beat
Spring's a girl from the streets at night
Dirty old town
Dirty old town

Tijuana, 1993, that’s where I was, washing my hands and all suited up. As though I could change a thing. That baby was coming out, to hell with anything else. They gave Rocio a shot (and I laughed and she still wants to kill me for that), and here we go. Of course, no men ever entered the arena, and there I was, the exception to the rule, apparently. On my behalf, look, I saw two Cesarean sections, both courtesy of my ex. I could handle a normal childbirth.

I held Rocio’s hand and she nearly broke it. We had a baby girl, in Las Brisas, Tijuana, that place isn’t even there anymore. Everyone looked at us beforehand like we were nuts. Here I was, a Gringo, we could’ve had her over there, on the other side. Rocio probably would’ve agreed to it. I didn’t want to.

Dirty old town, dirty old town.

The years, you know, they just fly by. Anna did most of her schooling here in Mexico. Now she’s navigating the U.S. system and it’s horrible. She gets a B in geometry and an F in physical education? “Sorry Dad, I forgot my gym bag.” And of course, my response? “Cramps. They come in really handy.” I would’ve used that excuse. I really would have. Cramps. Why not?

I Heard a siren from the docks
Saw a train set the night on fire
I Smelled the spring on the smoky wind
Dirty old town
Dirty old town

* * * *

So there I was, dressed out, and the doctor was starring up my wife’s gown. He nodded as though everything was going according to plan. I thought he was a clown. I mean, what else was he supposed to do? The nurse was too embarrassed to stay in the room, she left. My wife went into transition and almost broke my hand. I’ve had my hand broken before, so I know of what I speak. I’m amazed she didn’t break it.

I'm gonna make me a big sharp axe
Shining steel tempered in the fire
I'll chop you down like an old dead tree
Dirty old town
Dirty old town

We took Anna home that night. I had to fight with the staff. One day Anna might ask me why she was born in this dirty old town. Well, it’s your dirty old town, Anna. I wanted you to have one. I wanted it to be here. I wanted this dust to be yours, something you could hang on to. You’re going to be eighteen. I want you to have this. I was born in San Diego, but I hang on to Rowland Heights. Baby, you get Tijuana. All of it. I did this on purpose.

I met my love by the gas works wall
Dreamed a dream by the old canal
I kissed my girl by the factory wall
Dirty old town
Dirty old town
Dirty old town
Dirty old town

* * * *

Dirty old town, Anna. I just want you to have this dirty old town. If I can’t give you anything else, then I give you this.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Shell Game

Over a decade ago, I found myself stumbling around in downtown Tijuana with a cup of coffee in my hand. It was in the early morning, before nine o’clock, before most Tijuanenses were out and about in that area. The wife and me, well, we were having issues so I was renting a cheap but very clean apartment down near the old police station, where I had no kitchen, just a bed and a dresser and a radio and a lot of time on my hands. Those were the days when I made a living playing the ponies. And I did, and I made rent and had plenty left over and certainly enough to get a cup of coffee.

I couldn’t sit still back in those days. This had to be on a Monday or a Tuesday morning, both dark days in terms of betting a track, in that the main tracks were not racing – otherwise, I would have already been at the race book plotting and scheming. So I walked down Avenida Constitución and sipped my coffee and watched the locals meander on their way to whatever. Keep in mind, these were still the salad days of Tijuana. This was before the twin towers fell, before the border became a Goddamn mess, it was a different place then than it is now.

The locals mostly just passed by and no one even looked up. Fish tacos, that cart was so amazing, the smells entered my nose and teased me, but my hangover told me to pass. Worst thing you can do with a hangover like mine was to eat on it. It’s like feeding a dragon, you don’t; let the beast sleep it off. The coffee was enough. The walk was good. And then it happened.

And then, magic tricks appeared and I was the target of a shell game.

* * * *

The sun here will not be denied an entrance. To hell with those places that has no sun! The sun is here. It is wonderful. Vitamin “D” for everyone. Welcome to Baja, pack some sunscreen. Yes, I know, it’s the middle of January. Suit yourself, but trust me, you’ll thank me later. It was eighty-five degrees today. If you get skin cancer, don’t blame me because I warned you in advance.

My days are full, lazy but full. The propane trucks are coming more early every day, and now it isn’t just honking but there’s recorded music, too! There is a jingle that I won’t bother to translate here, but basically the truck is singing a happy tune about enabling you to purchase a tank of propane. I suppose that the idea is twofold: be annoying in an entirely different way than to simply honk the horn, and attempt to make the purchase of a tank of propane gas some magical thing like a visit to Disneyland.

I roll out of bed, make some coffee, and write for a while, what else is there?

In the afternoon, I go shopping. I take my Calimax Club Card, as though it is an enchanted artifact. I buy ingredients to mix together for dinner. Sometimes I buy a bottle of tequila. When I go to pay for my items, they always ask for my magic card, because without it I might as well have entered the store naked. They scan the artifact and hand it back to me and at the end of everything I pay for the items and tip the person bagging my groceries and step back out into the hot sun. During my walk home, I imagine that if there is a God of transaction, then I have certainly done my part to make that God happy.

And then, once home, I peruse the receipt and learn that I saved sixty cents against a fifteen-dollar purchase.

Of course, I get even. I realize that the card is nothing more than a tool for the grocery chain to analyze purchases. People who buy a head of lettuce are likely to purchase two onions. Shoppers carting off a couple of pounds of ground sirloin are likely to add a package of hamburger buns and a bottle of catsup. And so on. And then there’s me. A bag of serranos, a jar of apple sauce, two pints of sour cream, a half-kilo of bacon, a liter of tequila, and a forty-watt light bulb. Good luck with that, Calimax.

That’s my own little shell game, patent pending.

* * * *

So maybe it was twelve or thirteen or fourteen years ago, and there it was, suddenly and unexpectedly, and they went way out of their way to pull me into it. The old man behind the cloth-covered crate fumbled while trying to hide the ball, giving away the location as if he had lost his magic touch. A twenty-dollar bill went down, some Mexican yanked it out of his pocket as though it was the most precious thing he owned, and he slapped it down on that temporary table as though his very life depended on his intuition. And there it was, the ball, right where he pointed. The crowd cheered.

The first thing I was amazed at? The twenty-dollar bill. Nine in the morning, and someone yanks a Jackson out of their pocket? In Tijuana? Sober? And then, of course, the game went on, and the few there were all in on it and obviously kept trying to urge me to donate to their cause. I knew better. After a few more twenty-dollar bills went down, successfully compensated, I told the one that was the most vocal that, unlike them, I didn’t walk out onto the street with the big money like they did. In halting Spanish. And they knew they were the ones that were had.

And they left, all of them, very upset, looking for tourists I imagine. Me? I was delighted. Free entertainment, the kind you couldn’t buy with twenty dollars anywhere. Anytime. That old man was a magician. He made things appear that should have been invisible.

* * * *

And so I read this morning that the tiny and precariously positioned country of Taiwan has fired some test missiles, ostensibly designed as a show of force and a means of defense against China. Apparently, almost a full third of those missiles declined to strike their intended targets, some of which boldly failing in full view of world media. That old man is right back at it. He fumbles that ball, damn it, he just can’t help it, and you know where it’s at and someone is urging you to plunk down a twenty and make a wager. The United States of America is the mark, right? Simple stupid, stupid simple.

I know - I shouldn’t read World News but it’s the same damned story. I could live every one of my last days in Tijuana and never part another newspaper and I wouldn’t be missing a thing. It’s all just a shell game. The minute you don’t play is the minute you start to get smart. Next time you swipe that Club Card, do humanity a favor, buy some dog food, a flash light, and a can of corn. You’ll screw the game sideways and it isn’t like you’re not going to use those items in the long run. After all, the moment you plunk down the money, that old man is going to magically get his shell game back. But then, you knew that, didn’t you?

Tomorrow will again be hot. Do yourself a favor if you venture to Baja, and remember the sunscreen.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The 2012 Problem

Someone brought up 2012 earlier, so I thought I would take the opportunity to explain what is going on here, since I've had a small amount of time to study the Maya and their culture.

According to many scientists, the world will end on December 21st, 2012. Ancient Mayan computers, called "Big Giant Stone Tablets", were not programmed to continue beyond that date. At the time, programmers used an ancient computer language called "Olmec", inputting code through an ancient interface called a "chisel". The problem was that in those times the Maya were limited to base-18 and base-20, thus creating the systematic problem of "vigesimal roll-over". Scientists have been attempting to rectify the problem by inputting a newer code in base-64, but have so far been unable to master such intricate commands as "two straight lines underneath a squiggly one" and "dude with large head and big bulging eyes".

Hope that clears things up.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Terrorist Alert Threatens Holidays

TORONTO – Multiple unnamed sources are reporting that a level red terrorist alert will be issued beginning tomorrow. The sources, who wish to remain anonymous due to not having authorization to publicly comment, state that it is believed a fringe terrorist group originating extreme Northern Canada that goes by the name of San Taclas, plans on leaving packages distributed randomly, world wide. No word has been given by authorities close to the situation concerning the expected contents of the packages, although explosives and bio-hazardous chemicals have not been ruled out.

Little is known about the San Taclas. It was a wire-tapping anti-terrorist effort launched during the Bush administration where officials first learned of the group, through telephone conversations between what one source describes as, "Frighteningly young individuals that apparently have the capacity to communicate through a complex global network." The name "taclas" is French in origin, second-person singular past historic of "tacler", one who tackles. French authorities deny knowledge of any link the San Taclas has to France itself, although one spokesperson suggested that perhaps Quebec would become a focus of investigation. Government officials from the Canadian province have yet to issue a formal statement, but a spokesperson from Ontario was quoted as saying, "Quebec is a separate issue."

According to documents made public by the Freedom of Information Act, active operatives of San Taclas include extremely short people with large ears. They are believed to have been recruited for their ability to squeeze in and out of tight spaces and their acute sense of hearing. A leader of the terrorist group, who goes only by the name of Nicholas, is believed to be hiding in the most remote regions of Northern Canada in the company of his wife. Her name is not known. Efforts to find the location have failed, in large part due to the rugged and hostile environment of the region. The only wildlife able to withstand the frigid temperatures are seals, polar bears, and surprisingly, reindeer.

A press conference is expected to be held on December 24th, where authorities are likely to reveal more information concerning the situation.

Saturday, December 11, 2010


How can you see into my eyes
like open doors?

Leading you down
into my core

Where I’ve become so numb

Without a soul,
my spirit sleeping somewhere cold

Until you find it there
and lead




* * * *

Mine is a love story. Perhaps. I usually have to think about it, but not about her. I can’t tell you in terms of quantity how many times I came close to leaving this house, nor will I count the times that I did. It isn’t out of embarrassment. She doesn’t read my columns. Neither do my children. Too many words. This is what happens.

Anna was conceived on the living room floor in a house in Rowland Heights, California. This is one of my fondest memories ever. It was over eighteen years ago. Slowly after that Rocio leaked. We all leak. She timed it perfectly. I’m not so certain I could handle it as well now as I did then.

We married a few months later. Right there in Rowland Heights. I would have invited you all if I had known you back then, if we’d have been friends. My parents would’ve appreciated it. The Mexicans certainly represented. Again, this is what happens.

When Rocio leaked first, it was on the front porch of that house in Rowland Heights. It was all I could do not to fall down. Sometimes people go to war and we’re just too wrapped up in our own lives to realize it. I got it, it hit me right upside the head. She had come undone. I couldn’t blame her at all.

* * * *

(Wake me up) wake me up inside
(I can’t wake up) wake me up inside
(Save me) call my name and save me from the dark
(Wake me up) bid my blood to run
(I can’t wake up) before I come undone
(Save me) save me from the nothing I’ve become...

* * * *

"Well, baby, I’m drinking and I’m smoking."

Of course, she doesn’t like the response. First boyfriend was killed by the cops here. The son is named after him, "Juan". Then came her fiancée, he was murdered in cold-blood in Long Beach, California while she was still pregnant with Juan. I don’t utter his name in this house, I respect her that much. Holy shit. So, I found this all out when we were betrothed. And she said to me this: "When I die, I want to take my children with me."

Which, obviously, was a suicide note in the making.

We argued over that one for weeks. Ultimately, she changed her mind. So, back then, when we got married, I can’t for the life of me remember what we danced to. I can only promise you that it wasn’t exactly well planned. Later, I told her that our song, that the song where I always thought of her when I heard it, was "Everlong" by the Foo Fighters. This was, and remains pretty much true. But our real song is this one. On both sides, I promise you.

After all, I leak too.

* * * *

that I know

What I’m without
you can't just

Leave me

into me

And make
me real



to life...

* * * *

And so, I married her and I reckon we saved each other. After all, I was still beating my skull against the wall from my first marriage. An ex, two kids. I still miss those kids. I still dream about them, they’re still that young and I can still be their father. Last dream was just a few nights ago. It’s the latest of hundreds. Never mind the boy has a daughter I’ve yet to meet and the girl is approaching thirty. They are still four and seven in my pea-brain.

These things beat me up constantly.

But you know, there are so many other things I never talk about with the wife. My writing is one, I’ve learned, she just wants to sleep and I don’t blame her. Her past and my past, those are other things left untold. What we have is now. Right? No idea about the kids. Television, I reckon.

"Really dad, did you write something again?"

I could always lie. "Just more lesbian stories."

They would never read them. Thank God for lesbians.

* * * *


your touch


Your love

Only you
are the life




(all this time I can't believe I couldn't see
kept in the dark but you were there in front of me)

I’ve been sleeping a thousand years it seems
got to open my eyes to everything

(without a thought without a voice without a soul
don't let me die here)

There must be something more...





* * * *

And you know, it doesn’t always take all of this. Sometimes two people look at each other. Something clicks. But I think it’s when two people understand a simple thing together and they never have to even communicate it, I think that’s when it really comes together. You know, figure it all out on your own time. Meanwhile, I’ve got a few hundred words to hide away here.

And do me a favor? Don’t tell my wife that this is our song. But it is. On both sides. She saved my ass, too.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Powis Castle

It was nineteen hundred and ninety four, when dinosaurs apparently still roamed the planet Earth and my Spanish wasn't all that stellar, and I wandered into the Caliente Race and Sports book at well before eight in the morning. Slaking the appropriate scratch sheets from plastic bins hanging on the wall near the entrance, I then went upstairs and Robert was already there, barely, adjusting his markers and pens and other accessories in that same persnickety way he always did; I was just a slob. Cesar, our waiter, simply brought up the coffee, he didn't even bother to ask us. Gringos and their habits. We always tipped Cesar out very nicely.

"It's raining over there," I said, unpacking a notebook and a record book and spreading the West, Central, and East issues of the Daily Racing Form across my half of the table.

"I know," Robert said. He seemed delighted by it.

The television monitors in front of us flickered to life, tracks at New York and Florida would come first. The coffee, as it usually was in the race book, tasted weak. Both of us had bought our Racing Forms the day prior, and both of us had studied them for hours, well into the evening, me here in Tijuana and Robert from his rented room in downtown San Diego. It could have been any Saturday back then, but it wasn't. It was the first Saturday in May, and in the late afternoon, the 120th running of the Kentucky Derby would take place at Churchill Downs. One of the monitors switched to a shot of that track. It was a swamp.

Robert grinned.

* * * *

Where I worked at the time I first became interested in horse racing - at a then-famous old foundry in South Gate, California - a man who I refer to as my first mentor in handicapping worked as the purchasing agent at that foundry, and he donned other hats as well. His name was John Billings, and everyone called him "Big John", because he was big, really big. Big John taught me about speed and class, two important aspects when trying to pin down a winner in a race. It wasn't long before I was spending Friday evenings with Big John at Los Alamitos, they had this room down a short flight of stairs that led up to track level, and for around three and a half dollars you could get a prime rib dinner. Good times, good times.

Before that, I would go to Santa Anita with a friend, John Folsom, and we shared a love of the track and a love of drinks containing gin. We didn't go often, but we certainly went often enough. Even back then I knew better than to bet every race. I would read the newspapers daily and watch for one specific race and save my money and bet on one horse in that race. It was a strategy that worked very well. I saved three hundred dollars to bet on Desert Wine when he ran against John Henry on dirt. It didn't bother me at all to bet on a horse that went off at five to two odds back then. I collected my winnings and bought more gin drinks. I didn't know any better.

I would never bet a horse like that now. Robert Marotta, my second and perhaps my last mentor, taught me a lot about value. He taught me that there is absolutely no sense in betting a horse that heavily when there were so many races to choose from and so much value to be found. He was right. I found that I could do more damage with a hundred dollar bankroll on any given Saturday than I could do with three hundred dollars bet once every few months on a single horse. I have Robert to thank for that.

I lost track of Big John decades ago. He would be approaching seventy if he's still around. Big John had started as an illustrator on Madison Avenue, and the pressure drove him out of there. How he wound up at that foundry is anyone's guess. While I was preparing documentation packages at the company copy machine, he would tell me stories about the track. "Andy's Winston," he gushed, "was about the crookedest pacer I ever got a tip on."

He taught me how badly fixed the harness races were.

John Folsom moved up north, and one Friday evening after work he decided to drive to Reno. John was a careful driver, in that even before there was a law concerning seat belts, he would make all of his passengers fasten theirs or he would tell them to get out. I found it ironic, coming from someone who shot rapids in a kayak regularly. Another irony was that John Folsom died on that trip to Reno, apparently falling asleep and driving off of a high bridge, hitting a trestle, and never feeling a thing. I remember attending his service, where the family priest talked John up good. I wanted to throw up. John Folsom was an atheist.

"Such services are for the living," my parents reminded me.

Gin never tasted the same after that.

* * * *

By ten that morning, people were coming into the race book, and Robert and me sat chilly, taking trip notes from the New York and Florida races. He knew who I liked in that Derby. I had been talking up Tabasco Cat for weeks. As with every first Saturday in May, there was always one monitor showing the current odds for that race, because even though it was many hours away, there is so much money bet on that single event that people want to see where they stand. We both took a firm stand against the favorite that year, Holy Bull, but Tabasco Cat was a distant yet firm third choice. I reasoned that I'd never get those odds on that colt again, but it was early in my relationship with my mentor and he'd only had a few months to get through my thick skull.

"What's with the rolling around in the sand?" Robert remarked. He was teasing me. Tabasco Cat's trainer, D. Wayne Lukas, had set up a sand pit in the two weeks leading up to the Derby and the colt took to playing in it. Robert disapproved of taking a horse on such short odds, if you can call six-to-one short. I was stuck on the colt, stuck on his breeding, and stuck with him on that muddy track.

"Time for you to spit out your pick," I said.

Robert balked. It was the oddest thing about him, that he was actually quite superstitious. He loathed giving up his race selections, "Kiss of death," he would say. I argued the point with him at great length many times, that whatever we said in Tijuana couldn't possibly affect the outcome of a race anywhere else. Robert was unmoved.

"Actually, I like two horses," Robert finally confessed.

"Powis Castle, he just always tries. And Go For Gin."

I looked at the screen, Powis Castle was twenty-to-one and Go For Gin was half of that. Even in the short time that I had known Robert, I knew him enough to where I wasn't surprised. Go For Gin scared me. He was bred to love the slop, and there was plenty of slop as Churchill Downs began to run their early races, the horses might have well been swimming. I knew for sure that Go For Gin was not the best horse at that track but Nick Zito, his trainer, was scary good with young horses. It wasn't enough to get me off of Tabasco Cat.

"Powis Castle? Seriously?" I said.

"Hey, he has a chance in here. He tries, you can't ask more of a horse than that," Robert said.

We both made wagers on a couple of races at different tracks leading up to the Derby. Robert missed his, I hit one that paid well. But with fourteen horses going to post after Kandaly scratched out, we knew that the real prize of the day would be had a few minutes after two-thirty in the afternoon. Back in those days, horses beyond ten entered were all considered field bets. Even so, to this day, I can't remember a more contentious Derby, odds-wise, than was that one back in nineteen hundred and ninety four.

* * * *

Charles Edward Whittingham was a great thoroughbred horse trainer, born in Chula Vista, California in 1913, and he trained all of his life, only interrupted once with a stint in the Marine Corps during the Second World War. Among the many great racehorses that Charlie trained was Ferdinand, the winner of the Kentucky Derby in 1986. In a string of odd tragedies, after Ferdinand was retired to stud in 1989, he was later sold to a breeder in Japan in 1994. Sometime in 2002, Ferdinand was then sold to slaughter, becomming pet food or perhaps even people food. In that sacrifice, the Ferdinand Fee was developed some years later once the news went out to a horrified public concerning Ferdinand's unfortunate demise. This fee now insures that thoroughbreds are protected from such an ending, as well as can be monitored with the money that supports that cause.

Ferdinand paid a large price to insure a comfortable retirement for others.

In the late nineteen hundred and seventies, a young, brash, and cocky runaway named Rodney Rash showed up at Santa Anita and began as a hot walker for Whittingham. In the decade that followed, Charlie showed great patience with Rodney, who got himself into trouble on numerous occasions, having problems with both drugs and alcohol, wandering aimlessly in a self-destructive manner. Charlie bailed him out of jail on more than one occasion and made amends financially at times when Rash became irrational and busted up someone else's property.

By the late eighties, Rodney Rash had turned his life around. He was now Whittingham's head assistant. In 1991, Rash decided to stake his own claim and trained his own stable. In 1994, Rodney Rash trained Powis Castle all of the way into the 120th running of the Kentucky Derby. With jockey Chris Antley on board, that twenty-to-one shot was quite a story, indeed.

* * * *

It doesn't matter how long you've been handicapping, and it really doesn't matter how much you have down on a horse or two in that race, if you're a player, you'll get butterflies in your stomach when the horses are in the post parade for the running of the Kentucky Derby. Go For Gin looked happy to be there, and Tabasco Cat didn't look as full of himself as he usually was. Powis Castle was an afterthought, just another horse with fifteen minutes until post. Robert showed no emotion at all, a true pro's pro, we didn't talk as they galloped backside while the crowd sang "My Old Kentucky Home".

I had twenty to win on Tabasco Cat and another twelve dollars in exactas to back him up.

The shine from the water was alarming. It was the first time since 1948 that the Derby would be contested on an off-track, and my only thought was that regardless of the outcome, I had already made a profit for the day. Still, even more than the money, in this race there are bragging rights. So what if my colt liked to roll around in a sand pit? What difference would that make if he won?

I remember them loading into the gate, two at a time. All of that water, all of that mud. They turn up the sound in the race book and you hear the gates close behind the loaded horses, "Clank!" And then again, "Clank!" And so on. The gate handlers yelling, jockeys getting settled. And then you hear Tom Durkin say, "They're all in."

Go For Gin wrested the lead away from Ulises early in the backstretch and never looked back. Before that, he ducked into Tabasco Cat at the start, forcing that one into Brocco, but it didn't matter, my horse didn't care for the mud at all. This is what happens. All I could do was to feel good for Robert, who had a nice wager on the winner. Powis Castle? He ran 8th. The favorite, Holy Bull could do no better that 12th.

(Chart for the 120th Kentucky Derby)

* * * *

The aftermath is the entire point sometimes, in that entirely odd circumstances bring out some sort of a question of whether coincidence trumps such circumstances.

Rodney Rash continued to train up until February of 1996. Thinking that he had a simple case of the flu which included headaches and general tiredness, he ignored these symptoms until his condition became dire, and was then transported to a hospital in Los Angeles where he soon died from a rare blood disorder at age 36.

Chris Antley, the jockey that rode Powis Castle, had already won a Kentucky Derby on Strike the Gold in 1991. Later, after temporarily retiring due to weight and drug problems, he rode Charasmatic to victory in that race and repeated it in the Preakness Stakes. Antley died of a drug overdose in 2000 at age 34.

Charles Whittingham passed away at age 86, in 1999. He is enshrined in the San Diego Hall Of Champions, and there is a bust of Whittingham with his dog, Toby, on display in the paddock at Santa Anita Park.

Holy Bull, in spite of that disappointing showing in the Derby, went on to win Horse Of The Year in 1994. He is generally listed among the top 100 racehorses of all time, winning 13 of his 16 races. Holy Bull has been quite successful at stud, siring Derby winner Giacomo among many other winners. He currently stands at Darley in Lexington, Kentucky, for a $10,000 fee.

Tabasco Cat went on to redeem himself by winning both the Preakness and Belmont Stakes, finishing his racing career with 8 wins in 18 tries. He was very successful at stud, where his progeny earned over 17 million dollars. Tabasco Cat died in Japan in March of 2004 at the age of thirteen, of a heart attack while covering a mare.

Go For Gin finished 2nd to Tabasco Cat in both the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes and was retired and placed at stud due to an injury a year later. He went on to a very successful career as a stallion with his progeny earning over 22 million dollars to date. He currently stands at Bonita Farm in Maryland for a stud fee of $3,000 dollars.

Powis Castle finished 9th in the Preakness Stakes and had only minor success after that. He wasn't particularly popular at stud, only managing to sire four thoroughbreds and a handful of quarter-horse mixes. He died in a freak accident in a paddock in Texas in 2001, although he outlived his trainer and jockey from the 120th Kentucky Derby.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Notes From A Second-Story Window

The kids that roam this neighborhood are terrorists. Of course, we were all such terrorists when we were kids, at least to one degree or another. But here - in a place where I don't have a front yard or a driveway or even a backyard beyond a three foot wide space that houses a washer and dryer and propane tanks and a water heater - there is no space to separate the terrorist children from mischief. A few weeks ago I noticed that our small mat in front of the door was gone. Good thing that the little bastards didn't take the door itself.

So, when I looked out of the window the other evening, late and after all of the traffic got tired of pestering an otherwise peaceful night, and I noticed a dog sleeping on something that resembled what was once used to wipe our feet before entering the house, I had to grin. The dog, apparently, was not attached to any owner, as it came and went as the days wore on. I would go to bed in a second story bedroom here and look out of the window as I undressed in the dark and most of the time, across the street, the dog would be asleep on that mat. Even during the morning at times.

Mexico can be a cruel place for domesticated animals, and at the very least it can be an odd place to have to adapt to. I awoke the other morning and lit a cigarette, looked out of the window, and noticed that the dog was no where to be found, but watched a white cat on the neighbor's roof. It walked slowly, appearing to be amused at nothing. Then it suddenly took a crap, right there on the neighbor's roof. The funny part came when the cat tried to bury its poop. No dirt, no rocks.

No way to hide the evidence.

A couple of weeks ago I was preparing to prep dinner, and I looked out of the front door and noticed the dog again, napping on the mat. I went to the refrigerator and found two cooked bacon-wrapped hot dogs that no one would likely eat, so I took them out and opened the front door. I walked slowly across the street, careful not to approach the dog directly, I didn't want to spook it. It noticed me and seemed unafraid. I came up to it and it rolled onto its back. If the dog could've talked, it would have said this:

"I don't want any trouble, I love you whoever you are."

I gave the bacon-wrapped frankfurters to the dog and went back in and cooked dinner. The dog didn't follow me, didn't want anything more. In fact, the dog was nowhere to be found when I went to bed that evening. People ask me why I don't have a dog. It's because the more you give a dog, the more it wants. But that dog, well, that's my dog now. It can go wherever it pleases, and I don't have to house it. We never grew close enough to care about each other. We don't rely on each other. I gave it some hot dogs one time and it can sleep on my old mat. Otherwise, no one is asking for anything.

* * * *

Children are sometimes an entirely different matter, and last Saturday, I was fleeced. So far as life goes, this is inevitable sometimes. One gets stuck between the proverbial rock and the hard place. My own daughter turned on me. Imagine that. The kids were over a week and a half ago along with their mates and my sister-in-law and two babies and so on. As dusk went dormant, some of us sat out in front of this place, smoking and drinking, and then I got stuck somewhere in the darkness of that Saturday evening.

"Dad, I have to ask you for a favor," my daughter said.

Oh, hell, here it comes.

"I work tomorrow at six, can you walk me to work?"

Six, as in, the morning six hours after midnight. As in leaving the house at four-thirty, and I thought about how many times in recent days I had gone to bed after that hour. Should I decline, then my wife would go, just to make me feel like a jerk. As though I needed any help.

"We'll see," I said.

And, of course, four-thirty in the morning came very quickly, and her husband gave us a ride to the Otay border. I took Anna, who volunteered for whatever reason, and while my two daughters enjoyed a relatively painless border crossing, of course I get the third degree for not having a passport. By five o'clock, in the early morning darkness, we hiked the flat mesa through what's left of fields, about five miles in all. This, on a day where the buses don't run, all for her minimum wage job at a convenience store.

Dropping off my married daughter, the younger one rewarded herself with a two-dollar donut and I got a small coffee. We hiked the five miles back to the border, refusing a ride with a stranger in a van (what, do I look old or just stupid?), and once back in Mexico I felt safe again. Except, oh hell, everything is different now in Otay. We walked another five miles before I admitted to Anna that, perhaps, the taxis didn't use this road anymore. Eventually, we made our way back home.

That evening when I went to bed, I looked out the window. My dog was sleeping on my mat across the street. Everything was quiet. Somewhere on top of the neighbor's roof, there was an uncovered pile of cat poop. Somewhere in the night, there was a white cat that didn't care a bit about what it couldn't bury. Anna and me didn't care anything about walking anywhere for a couple of days.

* * * *

Anna has started school, this time enrolled in the United States of America for her senior year of high school. I see her on weekends. This last weekend, she brought home an assignment in English: write an essay. The essay was about reading. Fun stuff.

So, I instructed her. Organize your paragraphs; topic, then illustrative, and ultimately conclusive. Sentences should follow the same pattern. Make an outline first, and then write a draft and edit it. And so on.

She handed me what was supposed to be her outline, and it was more of a draft. Complete sentences with many misspelled words. But she did one thing correctly, she wrote as if she were speaking, nothing came off as contrived. I never taught her a damned thing about English.

"Why didn't you make an outline like I asked?"

"Dad, I can't do that. This is what I feel comfortable doing."

I didn't argue. How does one tell a painter how to apply a loaded brush to canvas?

"Fine. Put it away, don't look at it, we'll get back to it tomorrow. Go screw around on the internet or watch some television, don't think about it. Tomorrow, I want you to read it again and correct anything you see that you don't like," I said.

The next day, she had changed nothing, happy with what she wrote. I went through it and corrected her spelling, and we discussed minor points in phrasing, and she rewrote the essay neatly in ink. Monday she turned it in to her teacher, who said he would "get to it" when he could. Anna emailed me with that information. She said that she didn't have an opportunity to talk with him because he was giving a quiz.

"Obviously, they won't allow me to take the quiz," she wrote.

Obviously? While Anna has certainly been inserted in the middle of the school cycle of this year-round school, I am puzzled by their treating of her as though they shouldn't expect much of her. But then, she did relate to me that her counselor told her that she didn't expect much from Anna since she was schooled in Mexico and didn't show much interest in achieving high grades there. I only grinned at that because I know Anna. She's lazy, like her father. Must be a genetic flaw.

* * * *

Tomorrow, I'll be sending an email to her counselor. It will read something like this:

Dear Ms. Counselor,

I am Anna's father. While I have lived almost two decades in Mexico, I was in fact born, raised, and educated in the United States of America. I state this only so that you understand that my concern is not that of someone who might not be knowledgeable of schools in California. At least, I would presume that not much has changed since I lived there.

It has come to my attention that some of Anna's teachers are not requiring her to complete exams because she did not start at the same time period as did other students. This is very nice of them, I appreciate their consideration. However, this is not helping her. It is also not allowing me, as a parent, to understand what she now lacks in the requirements of your school system. I cannot tutor her unless I understand where she would fail. Failure is important, because we have nothing to learn unless we know what we are lacking.

The other morning, I woke up and lit a cigarette and looked out of the second-story window in my room. I watched a white cat take a crap on the neighbor's roof. I chuckled as I noticed the cat attempting to bury its poop, as there was no sand and no dirt. The cat, thinking that it had done all that could have been expected of it, simply walked away. Meanwhile, there is a pile of crap on my neighbor's roof.

Without sand or dirt - in the form of quizzes or other assignments - my daughter is no better off than is that cat, and society is no better off than is my neighbor's roof.

I have a dog. I haven't named it, and it doesn't belong to me, it simply sleeps on a doormat I once had in front of my door. That door mat is across the street now, oddly just below a neighbor's house which probably still has a pile of cat poop on the roof. The dog asks for nothing and takes what anyone is willing to give to it. Sometimes I give the dog frankfurters. It's a very nice dog.

And that dog will never learn anything because suckers like me give it food and walk away.

My daughter is not my dog. Please contact her teachers at your convenience and ask them to treat my daughter as though she had been at your school all along. When she fails, I will be able to teach her something. Do not give her any more hot dogs.

Thank you,

Anna's Father

Monday, August 23, 2010

Economics 101

Q: How many neo-Keynesians does it take to change a lightbulb?

A: Print more money.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Of Soil And Blood

Call me Prometheus. That brilliant, hot, burning orb in the sky was trying to kill me one week ago, but this week there is a marine layer saving me from melting. So, I stole that fire and now cook with it, instead. I buy liters of tequila for three dollars and fifty cents each and dare that eagle to eat my liver, Zeus be damned. Baja wipes clean all imperfections that were perhaps meant for higher purposes and achievement was met with some sort of failure, and someday I will also be unceremoniously erased and purged accordingly.

This is what happens.

There is a tiny little store on Boulevard Diaz Ordaz that sells, among other things, the best avocados in the universe. You could walk by it, blink a couple of times, and never have known that you passed it by, what with the shoe store and internet cafe and taco stand there, so many distractions. And young, beautiful girls in sundresses and sandals, taxis and buses of every size and color, noise, the smells of gorditas on the griddle and the busy bakery nearby bakes six times per day, heaven exists in your nose. The pace is neither frantically intense nor slovenly pedantic, but rather steady and secure and flowing like a large, relaxed river.

The daily circuit I complete often includes that little store with the avocados, but always includes the supermarket across the street from it and then the convenience store back on the south side of Diaz Ordaz. I took Anna with me on Sunday to the fish market first, and there was a nasty crash in the intersection with three automobiles looking as though a bulldozer got aggressive and bullied them into complete submission to the law of physics where a body in motion meets another body in motion and, well, metal isn't always as strong as it looks. No one seemed to be injured, although on our way back from the fish market, an ambulance and a fire truck had just arrived on the scene.

In the supermarket, we spent perhaps ten minutes on procuring supplies, and when we left to cross the intersection, there was no trace of anything from that accident. "How long were we in the store, anyway?" asked Anna.

"Ten minutes. It's like rain, it doesn't take long in Baja to wipe away a mess. Like when some bad guys kill some other bad guys, it just goes away quickly," I said.

All that Anna could do was to nod.

* * * *

It is the same dirt and the same rocks, separated by a big metal fence and an almost infinite amount of misplaced ideology. It wasn't that long ago when people swore allegiance to Kings and Queens, not dirt, not rocks, and certainly not ideology. A few hundred years later, and here we are, aligning ourselves according to jus soli and jus sanguinis; soil and blood. Thanks for that, France and Germany.

So, when a few months ago my sister-in-law and her husband - both Mexican Nationals with visas in their passports that allow them to travel into the United States of America in order to enjoy that country within a certain number of kilometers from the border without further permissions - decided to have their baby over there in Chula Vista, California, I announced that to a few hundred close friends. Some people seem to be sensitive to Mexicans having babies in the United States of America. This surprised me greatly. After all, the dirt and the rocks are no different there than they are here.

"Great, more illegals having babies in our country," came one reply.

"Mexicans are taking advantage of our health care system," wrote someone else.

Of course, Mexico has free health care, but it's difficult to convince some people who see a difference in the rocks and dirt of one place and the rocks and dirt of another place - separated by a short walk - to the contrary. But it's true. Anyone holding a job in Mexico is covered. Anyone not holding a job in Mexico will still be able to find free medical services should the need arise. And anyone who wishes can also pay for private health care at their leisure. Mexico is quite an accommodating country.

Little Daniela was born over there and after a couple of weeks, my sister-in-law, who is a licensed and practicing psychologist here in Baja, along with her husband, brought my niece back into Baja in order to enjoy a wonderful Mexican childhood here. Why bother having the baby in the United States of America? It costs less to have a baby over there than it does to obtain the necessary paperwork so that Daniela might visit the relatives of my sister-in-law's husband in Los Angeles. Imagine that.

All of this over dirt and rocks.

* * * *

The supermarkets, on the weekends, have taken to offering free grilling of whatever meat you purchase from them, and they perform this at the entrance to their stores. This is genius. While I prefer to grill my own meat, thanks anyway, the smell of that carne asada is fabulous. More nose candy, as if we needed any more. It makes me reconsider my menu offerings every time I pass by.

It has been so very seldom in my two decades here that anyone has ever said, "Hey, gringo, go back to your own Goddamn country." I can, in fact, count those number of times on one hand. All occurred in someone else's drunken moment. The cantineras always defended me and shushed the protester quickly. "How can you tolerate that bastard?" someone would always ask.

"Dirt and rocks," I would say, but meaning, of course, soil and blood.

So that when I pass by that supermarket, and the smell of carne asada enters my nose, it enters their noses as well. We share that. We share the dirt and the rocks, too. Except that some can't cross some nebulous fence because apparently the dirt and rocks are worth substantially more north of Mexico. My idea, then, is to set up a bunch of grills right on the border and toss on some of that thinly sliced marinated meat, just like they do at the supermarkets here on the weekends.

That'll shut a lot of people up.

* * * *

My son, Mexican born and raised, ultimately graduated high school in the United States of America. He then joined the American armed forces and enjoyed what must've been a terrific time in Iraq, and after six years came home and knocked up his lovely girlfriend. The American dream. He has made me a grandfather, for the second time. I have yet to meet my grandson, named Azael (no idea about the name), but in perhaps another week they'll be able to bring the boy into Mexico knowing that they have the papers to take him back across when they need to. Both parents are U.S. citizens, by the way, the Army gifted my son with citizenship in exchange for fixing their tanks and watching his Army buddies get their heads blown off.

Some claim that the current rate of exchange is a little over twelve pesos to the dollar. It isn't. It is citizenship in exchange for several dead pals and the vacation of a lifetime, complete with people shooting at you or otherwise trying to kill you with explosives. It is the soles of your boots melting on the turret platform while fixing a broken machine in exchange for a pass to cross over into a country you really don't care to live in. It is crossing the international border into the United States of America and being led away in handcuffs because the jerk checking your military identification decides you're lying in exchange for some other jerk checking your claim of citizenship six years later.

Funny that I received not one message concerning the birth of Azael as I did concerning the birth of Daniela.

I think that Prometheus had the right idea, and simply did not execute properly. I will endeavor to teach this lesson to young Azael, teach him to curse when appropriate, and encourage him to also rebel against authoritarianism at every opportunity. I will tell him stories about his father. I will ensure that this young boy understands that dirt and rocks matter not. If I am lucky, and if he is fortunate, then one less person will see the stupid border as a division of soil and blood, and see it for what it is; a duplicitous rite of passage.

The other option, and perhaps the only other option, is to wait for that rain to quickly wash everything away.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Requeim For A Fellow Cynic

"A cynic is just a disgruntled idealist." ~ Ian Orteza, 2006

* * * *

I was born in San Diego, California, in the United States of America in nineteen hundred and sixty-one. My father was in the Navy and we lived in a very small apartment just east of Lindburgh Field. With no money for anything more, my parents rented that place because they couldn’t afford anything better. Jet airliners screamed overhead, merely hundreds of feet above our heads. My parents told me that even before I could walk and talk that they would carry me outside and when those loud flying machines would come tearing up the sky above, in for a landing, I would point up to those monsters and stare in wonder and smile. One natural fear we are born with is the fear of loud noises, and apparently I had missed out in getting that memo. It was therefore no surprise to my parents I would wind up somehow involved in aerospace at one point in my life.

And so it goes, I was involved in the shock and awe business when I met Ian Orteza.

I left aerospace at around the same time that Ian left the United Nations. Ian found it ironic that the U.N. would even have offices in Geneva. "When you enter Switzerland, and you present them with your U.N. passport, they look at you and say, ‘Right, show us your real passport.’ And they act like you’ve insulted them," he once told me. Ian also held a Filipino passport. Geneva honored it.

Another irony: Ian worked in war reparations, while I worked in making the hardware creating the necessity for that reparation job. We acknowledged this several times. We figured that if we kept it going that we would simply keep each other in business. Like true cynics, we decided that since people would kill each other anyway, there might as well be the means to an end, and inversely, the end to a means. The dog could wag the tail or the tail could wag the dog. Our reading glasses would simply slide down the end of our noses and we would enter numbers on a spreadsheet that ultimately makes everything balance out for everyone else.

This is what happens.

* * * *

The internet was so shiny and brand new, there wasn’t even a glimpse of a social networking site. Meredith’s place was hand-coded, and she had a threadless forum, and that’s where I met Ian, along with Sammy and Heath and Michael and Gina and Terry and Chris, and a host of people I still know to this very moment. Ian brought in Katriona, too. So, for a good few years, I would get to work and wonder what everyone was up to, and daily we would post something in there, and from those comments we learned much about each other. How we all wound up on Meredith’s site, well, I imagine the universe attracts misfits to a certain point on its own accord.

I considered us all explorers.

After a couple of years, then, it came as no great surprise that some would venture forward in order to expand their knowledge and to experience another place. Sammy and Ian both flew in to San Diego so I went up to meet them there and to bring them back into my world. If I had it to do all over again, perhaps we would have unwound down in Popotla. But we were young and they were single and the nightlife of Tijuana was too good to pass up. We grabbed it, because we had to. It was an ice-cold beer right in front of us. Or perhaps, a mountain to be climbed. And so we did.

"The church of the naked Madonna’s," Ian called it, the premiere strip joint in Tijuana at the time. We had fun there, but we didn’t stay long. We weren’t interested in hookers. The reference, obviously, was toward what we would experience the next day - the big giant Jesus; or as I called it then, the Church of the Big Giant Jesus. We went up there and played around with that statue even before it was mounted on the dome where it now rests. I don’t know where Ian’s photos wound up, but the photographic angles up into the lattice were amazing. He was amazing.

Ian Orteza died last week, in his sleep. This World weighs far less today than it did when he was alive. I didn’t cry the day that Ian died, it took me a couple of days, but then I did finally bawl like a hungry child. I got real mad at God. I still am. So, apparently, God is a cynic, too. You’re in good hands then, Ian. Put in a kind word for me, I reckon I’ll need it.

* * * *

There is a depth to some men that surpasses anyone’s ability to ever reach the bottom, and that was Ian. Somewhere in there, a vast chasm of patient knowledge and lasting wisdom resided, and you could sit with him and wait and prod him and maybe you would get lucky and this soft-spoken man would open up. Rocio got mad at Sammy and me, that if perhaps we would just shut up every once in a while that she could hear Ian. After the first night of drunken foolishness, I took Ian and Sammy up the street and we ate tacos de birria because there isn’t a much better way to quell a hangover. And because, after all, birria tastes wonderful.

"This place is a lot like the Philippines," Ian said, cupping his taco masterfully above the plate.

And of course, we went to Caliente, because there is so much history there, Seabiscuit and others, it was at one time – along with Tanforan – the only track on the West Coast. I have pictures somewhere of Ian and Sammy in the old rusted starting gates, until a security guard tried to take a bribe for me taking those photos. I talked my way out of it, like I’m prone to do. We went to the old cinco y diez bridge and took more photos. Then, the Church of the Big Giant Jesus. And so on.

Ian brought me a gift from Katriona, it was a pocket knife with my name engraved on the side. My gift to her, then, was a machete. It was engraved with images of harvesting agave. Fitting, since I’m sitting here drinking tequila. And so, Ian wrote me, "She sleeps with it," and you know how I felt about that. Maybe there are no other four words that are more erotic than those words are. Ian knew. No man writes those words and doesn’t know what they mean to another man. And no woman sleeps with a sword and doesn’t know what it means to the man the sword came from.

* * * *

Ian’s talents were not limited to writing. He sketched a comic strip for some time, called "Orgasmic Chill". Basically, feet out of the bottom of the bed. That’s all we are as lovers, really. He knew. It was so completely clever. It was so completely human.

Ian climbed mountains. Maybe in more ways than Mother Nature set forth, Ian decided that there were more important things to do than to wait for some nefarious challenge from God. I never wondered for a minute why he climbed, I knew. Just like he never wondered how I wound up in Mexico. It’s my own mountain. To Ian’s mother: Your son was my brother. Maybe not in blood, but certainly in spirit. To Ian’s daughter: I cannot be your father, but I will be your friend, perhaps one day you’ll have a question that only a father could answer.

Ian was not the person who inspired me to write; he was the first person to encourage me. I wrote a piece on Christopher Columbus and Ian loved it. If you like what I write, then thank Ian, otherwise I imagine I wouldn't have bothered. It was, I reckon, my own mountain. And, you know, Ian just told me to do it. Sammy will undoubtedly love this next thing:

"There's nothing to mourn about death any more than there is to mourn about the growing of a flower. What is terrible is not death but the lives people live or don't live up until their death. They swallow God without thinking, they swallow country without thinking. Soon they forget how to think, they let others think for them. Their brains are stuffed with cotton. They look ugly, they talk ugly, they walk ugly. Play them the great music of the centuries and they can't hear it. Most people's deaths are a sham. There's nothing left to die."

~ Charles Bukowski, The Captain Is Out to Lunch and the Sailors Have Taken Over the Ship, 1998

And Ian, Bukowski would be proud of you. You did live your life and you never swallowed anything without tasting it first. I can’t imagine that you ever believed anything without examining it first, that is the way of us cynics, isn’t it? For you, whatever is there once we’re gone, if wings are given out in heaven, I can’t imagine you flying until you’ve had a good chance to evaluate those feathers. And then, once you’re convinced, I can’t imagine that you’ll ever land again. Some people were born to fly. You are certainly one of those people, my brother. I will miss you so very much, and it’s entirely possible I’ll never love another man as much as I loved you. I will happily take what part of you you’ve given to me to my grave, and everything I write from here and there, well, you have always been a part of it. Enjoy your vacation, Ian, I hope to see you again some day.

Monday, May 03, 2010

The Battle of Madison Avenue

"The King of France went up the hill, with twenty thousand men; the King of France came down the hill, and ne'er went up again." ~ Variation of "Old Tarlton’s Song" (English nursery rhyme from the sixteenth century)

* * * *

Put down the tequila bottle and back away from the guacamole and tortilla strips, America. Before you celebrate Cinco de Mayo, let’s make sure we all reach a consortium with the large corporations that are hoping to sell a lot of their mass produced nachos and margarita mix before going any farther. Hopefully, everyone has learned by now that Cinco de Mayo isn’t Mexican Independence Day, which is on the sixteenth of September. Cinco de Mayo is the day that Mexican troops defeated forces from France in the Battle of Puebla. I’ll bet a lot of people know about that now as well.

But in the days leading up to the holiday, you’re bound to read a lot of incorrect facts and almost nefarious ideas; not only about the battle of Puebla, but concerning exactly how and where this day gained whatever fame it may or may not deserve.

One thing to keep in mind is that it isn’t a holiday celebrated in most of Mexico. With the exception of the city of Puebla, and the dubious shindigs in tourist cantinas, the fifth of May in Mexico isn’t that different from the fourth of May or even the sixth. And regardless of the presidential proclamation (Benito Juarez had run North and far away from the invasion at the time, it sort of fell on deaf ears), it never has quite caught on in Mexico. In fact, it began as an American holiday. Honest.

Beyond that, there are myths that appear as fact, especially on the internet. You’ll read that the battle of Puebla was won by a Mexican force outnumbered two to one. Actually, they were outnumbered about four to three, with an unknown number of uncounted civilians fighting for Mexico. Another unproven position that has gained traction over the years, is that the battle of Puebla is sacred to the U.S. as having somehow stopped France from marching into Georgia and fighting on the side of the Confederate Army, a posit from UCLA professor David E. Hayes-Bautista. While it is quite a romantic notion to link Cinco de Mayo to the American Civil War, Hayes-Bautista obviously has no firm grasp of French history.

The best place to start any good story of invading a country under pretext in the middle of the nineteenth century is in France.

France, 1852 through 1871 – The Rise and Fall of Second French Empire

Napoleon III, after four years as President of the Second French Republic, became Emperor of the French in the Second French Empire. His rule, especially in the first eight years, was authoritarian, and all opposition was censored and silenced at his whim. While speaking of peace, Napoleon enjoyed employing his quite superior French troops to back French interests. The indemnities, compensations, territories, and trade opportunities that resulted were fuel for the industrial revolution in France.

French forces aligned with English forces (along with Turks, Sardinians, Germans, and even Swiss) successfully fought the Crimean War against a Russian alliance. The resulting victory gave France increased authority in Europe. France also took part in the Second Opium War along side British Empire, the result of which commanded trade routes and resulted in a large indemnity for France. The pretext for the Second Opium War was the murder of a missionary.

In Italy, Napoleon had employed French troops to restore Pope Pius IX as ruler of the Papal States, a move that won wide support from European Catholics. Concurrently, Napoleon negotiated with the Italian revolutionaries responsible for seizing the Papal States in hopes of helping to establish an Italian unification, which was very popular with the liberal left. Ultimately, Napoleon succeeded in his true intentions, which was to expel Austria from the Italian peninsula and gain Savoy and Nice from Piedmont in the process. This was to be a pattern in the rule and foreign policy of Napoleon III; attempt to satisfy both right and left with a completely different endgame in mind. Napoleon’s duplicity was never obvious by his intentions beforehand, but is only made transparent by the results.

When Napoleon had caught wind that Mexico’s monarchists approached Maximilian, an archduke from the Royal house of Austria, and they had asked him to become the Emperor of Mexico, Napoleon saw opportunity. Mexico was vulnerable and cash poor, President Benito Juárez having recently suspended the interest payments on foreign debt, and the precariousness of the new constitution of 1857 was laid wide open after the resulting Mexican War of the Reform had brought it, along with Juárez, into power. Maximilian at first resisted, but once France convinced him that they would supply support, he agreed.

Under the terms in the Treaty of London signed in 1861, France, Spain, and the United Kingdom set sail and landed in Veracruz in order to pressure Mexico into paying their debts. Soon after landing, both Spain and the United Kingdom realized that this was a pretext for France to occupy and possibly colonize Mexico, and they left within six months. Was Napoleon and France actually after the colonization of Mexico? Was the invasion of Mexico part of a much larger plan to enter into the American Civil War on the side of the Confederacy? Neither scenario, in spite of Napoleon’s "Grand Scheme for the Americas", would have resulted in a satisfying outcome and would have been quite inconsistent with the true strategies that Napoleon employed in foreign policy.

The interventions and invasions by Europe during the middle of the nineteenth century were mostly intended to ensure the exploitation of resources and enable profitable trade. In Mexico, the gold and silver to the north were certainly goals of Napoleon, along with a way to circumvent the successful sea embargo by the Union in order to allow France to trade with the Confederacy by way of Texas. To commit the troops necessary for colonization of Mexico would have been a disaster for France; to invade America to fight on the side of the Confederacy was never seriously considered. France had other issues at hand closer to home. Prussia was now a dominating factor in Europe, and war was looming. Ultimately, France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian war would lead to the end of the Second French Empire.

The United States of America and the Western Territories, 1846 through 1867 – Manifest Destiny, the Treaty of Hidalgo, and the American Civil War

In 1846, the United States of America declared war on Mexico. As with most wars, there was pretext, in that Texas had decided it was a republic, and that apparently a Mexican patrol had killed some American troops, in a skirmish referred to as "The Thornton Affair". Over the years, the Thornton Affair has been revised so many times that the truth might never be known. The very idea of taking the Mexican north goes back as far as President Andrew Jackson, who believed that it was necessary to obtain all territory north of the 37th parallel in order to ensure that the British empire would have no success at claiming that land.

The Mexican-American War was fought on several fronts, culminating in an invasion force which landed at Veracruz (about 15 years before French forces landed!), which ironically included future opposing Generals in the American Civil War, Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant. Mexican forces were routed, and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed in early 1848. The treaty, along with the later Gadsden Purchase (which was so unpopular in Mexico that it led to the banishment of Santa Anna for good), granted the United States of America with the territories of Nuevo Mexico and Alta California.

This land grab, by now, was an important part of hostilities between the Southern and Northern American States. In his memoirs, perhaps President Grant put it best into perspective. "The Southern rebellion was largely the outgrowth of the Mexican war. Nations, like individuals, are punished for their transgressions. We got our punishment in the most sanguinary and expensive war of modern times." The Southern States were delighted to have the opportunity to add representation to their ongoing battle with the Northern States over State’s rights, slavery, and other issues that eventually led to civil war. The Northern States were wary of it.

California was on a fast track to becoming a State, and the Compromise of 1850 was reached in order to stave off civil war (which only lasted about four years until the Kansas-Nebraska act). Part of this compromise was that California was to be a slave-free State (as Texas was already a slave State), and the rest of the territories could determine their own status by popular vote. While the Mexican authorities had retreated back to Mexico after the Mexican-American war, the native population remained. With the gold rush of 1848 came more settlers in the years that followed.

California’s involvement in the American Civil War was pedestrian. While troops were recruited and sent to fight for the Union, many settlers in California came from the South. They were generally powerless to affect the war; Confederate sympathizers were prevented from organizing and denying them the use of the mail closed down their newspapers. William Gwin, once a congressman from Mississippi, moved to California upon Statehood and was elected as Senator. After the Civil War broke out, he toured the South and returned to California, where he spoke on behalf of the South, going so far as to consider the possibility for a separate Republic centered in California to secede from the Union. On a trip to New York, Gwin was arrested, then released, and eventually fled to France during their occupation of Mexico where, ironically, he approached Napoleon III with an idea about a project to settle American slave-owners in Sonora, Mexico. While Napoleon was favorable, Maximilian rejected the proposal outright, fearing that Gwin would wish to seize the land and start a new Republic.

In the middle of the American Civil War, France, Spain, and Britain signed the Treaty of London in 1861, ostensibly to blockade Mexico and put pressure on her to repay her debts. It was when France invaded that the United States of America formally protested; but in the midst of Civil War, there was no way to provide aid to Mexicans backing a Republic over a Monarchy. In order to ensure non-interference from Britain and France, President Lincoln successfully blockaded Confederate ports, pushed an abolitionist agenda that was socially popular in Europe, and proclaimed the Confederacy as "insurrectionists" rather than belligerents which forced England and then all of Europe to declare neutrality. The only true threat of intervention was at a point when the major European nations were considering offering mediation, which would have had the disastrous result of automatically extending recognition by Europe of the Confederacy.

Meanwhile, word had reached California that French forces had been defeated at Puebla. California, still inhabited by a large percentage of Mexicans, read the news in Spanish in San Francisco’s La Voz de Mejico, or from several other small Spanish presses left intact after the Mexican-American War, celebrating wildly. While the American Civil War was raging far away, the Mexican population in California had something closer to their interests to read, three times per week, if there was any news at all to be read from the French invasion. That holiday – Cinco de Mayo – was born in California, in the years that followed the Battle of Puebla.

Ultimately, when the American Civil War ended, President Andrew Johnson tried and failed to gain support of Congress to supply arms to Juárez in order to hasten the retreat and departure of French forces from Mexico. Instead, Johnson ordered a sea blockade to keep any possible French reinforcements from arriving, and moved some fifty thousand troops to the Texas border. Besides American troops threatening to invade and engage French forces on Mexico’s soil, approximately 300,000 muskets were "misplaced" in an area very "close" to Mexico’s border (or unofficially, guns and ammunition were left neatly placed on Mexico’s side of the border).

The United Mexican States and Territories, 1855 through 1867 – The Ley Juárez, the Mexican War of the Reform, and the French Intervention in Mexico

The Gadsden Purchase was the last straw in the storied career of Dictator Antonio López de Santa Anna. Throughout Mexico’s history, internal struggles between the conservatives who supported a centralized and hierarchical form of government, and liberals who wanted a federal republic, led to constant political struggles, violent opposition, and even all-out civil war. Benito Pablo Juárez García, born poor and raised by an uncle, took a domestic job as a young boy that eventually led him to the opportunity to study law. Eventually, he became a judge and then was governor of the state of Oaxaca from 1847 to 1852. In 1853, he went into exile in protest of Santa Anna’s corruption and abuse of power, but returned to Mexico in 1855 when Santa Anna was forced to resign.

Under General Juan Álvarez, Juárez served as Chief Justice, and liberal reforms were broadly implemented that proved immediately unpopular with the conservatives. Under the Ley Juárez, the power of the Catholic Church and the military were severely restrained, all citizens were declared as equals, and an economic model based on capitalism and free trade was proposed similar to that of the United States of America. Álvarez gave way to Ignacio Comonfort and Juárez became Comonfort’s Vice President. The new Constitution of 1957, which included Juárez’s liberal revolutionary laws, led to the Mexican War of the Reform, and ultimately Comonfort was forced to resign the Presidency and Juárez was jailed briefly before he managed to escape to Quéretaro.

Civil War had broken out and while the Conservatives controlled Mexico City, Juárez was named as President by the Liberals and forced to retreat to Veracruz. General Félix Zuloaga, meanwhile, was installed as President in Mexico City. Fighting continued for almost four years, as the Conservatives had the upper hand at first, but the Liberals ultimately proved to be too much. On January 1st, 1861, Mexico City was finally taken back. Unfortunately for Juárez, the victory was made bitter almost immediately.

Most of the Conservatives regrouped and remained in Mexico, and plotted to install Maximilian as the Emperor of Mexico. Concurrently, the Liberal Government was pressured into giving amnesty to many of the Conservatives. Meanwhile, Juárez was faced with external pressure from Spain, Britain, and France for the large debts owed to them by Mexico. When Juárez could not pay the debt, the three countries sent ships to Veracruz and seized the Veracruz customs house in December of 1861. Shortly thereafter, Spain and Britain left, recognizing this as a pretext of other motives by France.

The French Army was led by General Charles de Lorencez, who was led to believe that the people of Puebla were friendly to the French and that any resistance in Puebla would be quelled by the populace once that French troops arrived. It was this miscalculation, and the overconfidence of the French Army in general that led to the defeat at Puebla. On May 5th, 1862, Lorencez began his attack from the North, and toward the middle of the day. It didn’t go well, and the forces led by Mexican Commander General Ignacio Zaragoza Seguín was able to withstand three assaults before forcing the French retreat. The French lost over 450 of its 6,000 soldiers, while Mexico only suffered less than 100 killed from 4,500 soldiers and uncounted fighting civilians.

The battle was not so remarkable in terms of numbers; the French were unfamiliar with the terrain, and the daily afternoon rains in Puebla certainly helped the Mexican forces. But the French were the elite army of the era, and hadn’t lost a battle in over fifty years. Mexico’s victory was short-lived, however. By June, French forces had Zaragoza and his troops bottled up in Veracruz. In the months that followed, French reinforcements arrived, and by October of 1863, Maximilian was crowned as the Emperor of Mexico. Juárez, meanwhile, had retreated to Chihuahua, and his calls for a National Battle of Puebla Day were shouted in the direction of North of the border.

Early on, Napoleon had warned Maximilian that his support was not likely to last. Maximilian was stubborn, he believed that the conservatives who put him in power would continue to win battles against the opposition. One problem was that Maximilian was becoming unpopular with his conservative base for implementing many liberal reforms. He even offered Juárez the post of Prime Minister, which Juárez declined. When a war between France and Prussia became imminent, Napoleon began to pull troops out of Mexico and pleaded with Maximilian to leave the country. Maximilian refused, and ultimately, was betrayed by one of his own Generals when he tried to escape, once the Republicans had cornered him in Queretero.

The Celebration of Cinco de Mayo, 1863 through 2010 – Culture and Heritage vs. Madison Avenue, the New Invading Force

The very first organized celebration of The Battle of Puebla couldn’t have taken place on May 5, 1862, but accounts of celebrations in California since then are widely documented. As the population grew in California, so did the celebrations. The old Plaza del Pueblo de Los Angeles is the largest of organized Cinco de Mayo celebrations, and many cities and towns up and down California have had continuous parties each year on the fifth of May. While it’s easy to understand how it happened, and perhaps even why it happened, the way it seems to have taken the entire country and converted many people into tequila-drinking, guacamole-eating revelers one day out of every year can only be summed up when taking into account that Madison Avenue is to America now, what the invading French were to Mexico then.

The battle of Puebla is remarkable in some ways and unremarkable in others. The Mexican Army wasn’t so outnumbered by the French, no matter what you read on the internet, and while the defeat by the French was certainly great news for Mexicans living in California who were probably dismayed reading about a Confederate Army gaining victories in battles in the American Civil War, it didn’t hold back the French for very long at all. It also seems quite an incredible reach to believe that the battle of Puebla had any effect or even any relationship to the American Civil War. As President Grant pointed out, the American Civil War probably had more of a relationship to the Mexican-American war than to any other conflict.

So, celebrate Cinco de Mayo if you must, so long as you understand what you’re celebrating. And real Mexicans drink their tequila without limes and salt, traditional margaritas are not made in a blender with crushed ice, and no self-respecting Mexican would dip a tortilla strip in guacamole unless the guacamole was hand-made using fresh avocados. And know that the people in Mexico, respectfully and admirably and sometimes even lovingly, think that us Americans are nuts. But in Mexico, any reason for a party is a good reason.