Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Nopal: Past, present and future

Native to Mexico but now found ‘round the world, flat-leafed nopal (opuntia) cactus was central to pre-Hispanic culture. Tenochtitlán, the Aztec city built in what is now Mexico City’s Historical Center, means “place of the cactus.” In addition to consuming nopal as food, Mesoamericans found varied ways to use this versatile plant: to treat wounds, to purify water, to fence farming fields. Mixed with quicklime it strengthened mortar and waterproofed whitewash paint. Today it is also used as food for livestock.

We see portrayals of nopal cactus so often in Mexico it is easy to overlook its significance. We see it on the flag as part of the national shield; it is portrayed on every Mexican coin in our pockets.

In high elevations of northeastern Morelos, mile after mile of gorgeous young bright-green nopal plants grow in straight unirrigated rows in the municipality of Tlayacapan. Neighboring Milpa Alta, the most rural of the Federal District’s 16 delegations (boroughs) will be hosting its Nopal Fair next month. In August, central Mexico will celebrate the fruit of the flat leafed cactus — the prickly pear – known in Spanish as “tuna” (not to be confused with tuna-fish, which in Spanish is “atún”). Ferias de la Tuna will be held in the states of Puebla, Tlaxcala, Mexico, and Morelos – all major centers of nopal production.

Nick Watson, long-time resident of Cuernavaca and a major exporter of nopal, says, “Nopal is a miracle food on the brink of worldwide discovery, already widely consumed. Known in much of the world as prickly pear cactus, nopal was proliferated shortly after the conquest by Spanish ship captains who valued the plant for its ability to stave off scurvy. Able to grow in desert conditions, Spaniards found it could be planted most anywhere their ships landed, providing a dependable source of vitamin C.”

“The most interesting part of this world-wide planting” said Watson, “is highly adaptable nopal morphed everywhere it was planted. In some places it’s almost unrecognizable only 500 years later. Some adaptations have long spines and some are smooth-leaved, some nopal grow very tall, others close to the ground. In Galapagos, where the nopal co-exists with the giant tortoise, nopal are tree-sized.”

We in the west are accustomed to describe food as sweet, sour, bitter or salty. Japan has another word to add to that list, umami. Umami – translated into English as “deliciousness” — corresponds to the taste glutamates leave in your mouth, coating your tongue. The first food we experience with umami is breast milk. Japanese describe nopal’s consistency as umami. Understandably, nopal is a popular Japanese food.

As if it’s nutritional and medicinal values were not sufficient, the nopal cactus is also home to the cochineal insect, one of Europe’s most valuable 16th- and 17th-century commodities. A quarter of the dried insects weight is carmine or a scarlet red dye. In the Middle Ages, Polish and North African cochineal was used in illustrating religious manuscripts but was rare, difficult to harvest and did not retain its color nearly as well as Mexican cochineal. Until artificial dyes were made in the 19th century, Mexican cochineal was traded on the London commodity exchange at roughly the same value per ounce as gold.

But today in central Mexican fields there is little evidence of cochineal. Harvested healthy paddles — nopal leaves — are clean, tender. “Their small spines are sufficient to hold evening dew and fields need no irrigation,” says Watson. “We use ancient methods of growing and fertilizing, obtaining the highest possible organic certification. When we started working with Morelos nopal farmers they were pleasantly surprised we wanted to learn from them about the way their ancestors farmed. We now use only sterile fertilizer, composted from cow and chicken manure. Old, tough paddles are chopped up, tilled back into the soil; we have no need for pesticides. We are now planting in previously unusable land.

“We’ve formed a co-op of Mexican farmers willing to use organic methods for growing and are thrilled with the results. Our company is also committed to exploring the medical value of nopal. In pre-Hispanic times this area of the world advanced the use of herbs and various barks and foods for their medicinal properties.

Nopal was used early on for the treatment of diabetes as well as many other diseases. Watson: “With the prevalence of diabetes in today’s world we worked with the University of New Mexico on a 2008 study that showed significant value of nopal for treating Type II diabetes and, by the way, for the relief of hangovers. There is also strong evidence for its anti-inflamatory properties.”

The NM study showed daily intake of grilled nopal significantly decreased the amount of insulin needed by patients with Type II diabetes.

Watson: “The demand for organic nopal now exceeds our ability to produce. We have large containers of nopal paddles shipping daily to ports in Los Angeles and New Jersey, destined for markets throughout the United States. But our long-term goal is to educate the public to see nopal as a daily ingredient. Nopal tortillas, nopal chips, nopal flour are already on your grocery shelves.”

Is nopal the miracle food of this century? Perhaps!

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Art as tax, tax as art

Artists pay taxes in Mexico and the country benefits for generations. How can this be when artists aren’t typically the wealthiest members of society?

In 1957 artists David Alvaro Siqueiros and Gerardo Murillo (Dr. Atl) visited Hacienda authorities at the Finance Secretariat (Hacienda) with a unique proposal. A friend of theirs — also an artist — heavily in arrears on taxes, faced imprisonment. Siqueiros and Dr. Atl asked, “How about if he pays his taxes with works of art rather than pesos?”

Hugo B. Margáin, an independently minded Hacienda official later to become the treasury secretary, agreed to give it a try. The “Pago en Especie” (Payment in Kind) program was off and running.

Nearly 60 years later, Mexico is enriched by 6,500 pieces of art received through this program. They are housed in the Palacio del Arzobispado just north of the Palacio Nacional and overflow into other exhibit areas and warehouses. This patrimony is considered one of the world’s most valuable contemporary art collections.

And they travel. Hacienda sends exhibits throughout Mexico and other countries. “In addition to lending works of art to museums we currently have shows in Turkey, Russia and a collection on its way to Brazil,” commented Hacienda’s Director General of Cultural Promotion Juan Ramón San Cristóbal. “In the past year we’ve had shows on five continents.”
I met Sr. San Cristóbal last week at the beautiful Olmedo Museum in southern Mexico City. He was there to open a new exhibit in Olmedo’s “Payment in Kind Room.”

The concept of artists paying their taxes in kind is unique to Mexico but is receiving favorable publicity in other countries. The U.S. magazine The Atlantic ran a feature article on Mexico’s Payment in Kind program last month. It explains, “The program is simple—donations are made according to reported sales. If an artist sells between one and five pieces of art in a given year, he or she donates one piece to the federal government. If the artist sells between six and eight pieces, he or she donates two, and so on, with an annual cap of six donations. Only painters, sculptors, and graphic artists can participate, though program administrators are currently considering whether to include performance art as an acceptable means of payment.”

There is a jury to qualify the artists and evaluate submitted pieces. Quoted in The Atlantic, artist Antonio “Gritón” Ortiz says, “You might think we would be tempted to scribble something on a napkin to pay our taxes. But aside from being convenient, inclusion in the program is a source of pride.”

Artist Flor Minor’s show opened at the Olmedo last week. “Architecture of the Intimate” features 24 pieces of art, most owned by Hacienda. The show includes sculpture, drawings, and lithographs. The sculptures, all male nudes, are mostly performing various forms of manual labor.

Minor has participated in 15 collective and 25 individual exhibits throughout Mexico and has been a part of the Payment in Kind program since 2004. She’s donated even more art than her contribution required because she sees the benefit of having work in a prestigious national collection.

I was fortunate to have some time alone with Ms. Minor to ask about her art. She told me the Payment in Kind program “is a way to get my work out and be seen without leaving my workshop. At the beginning of my career I was known for my drawing and lithographs. In 2009 I had my first sculpture exhibit. This show promotes this other phase of my art.”

Her large sculpture “Equilibrium” intrigued me and I wondered whether this human balancing act was even possible. I asked Ms. Minor if she uses models for accuracy. “In none of my artwork have I used a model,” she said. “ I only use myself. I know how muscles work. I twist around, contorting my body to see what is possible. How do I move my leg, how do my fingers flex? I’d like to work with a model. Maybe I don’t because I haven’t yet found my model.”

She laughed when I replied, “You use a woman’s body to sculpt men!” I suggested that in her workshop she might have mirrors. “No, I start from the consciousness I have of my own body. I may not know the names of the muscles and bones but I know they’re there and I know their shapes.”

What I know is that the concept of payment in kind is allowing the Mexican public to have access to art that might otherwise be held only in private collections, as well as permitting artists to pursue their avocation — a win-win for us all.
“Architecture of the Intimate” will be on exhibit at the Museo Dolores Olmedo through August 17, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., closed Mondays.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Language and translation

I was fortunate to grow up in Colombia, bilingual and bicultural from birth. My father would remind us that as a matter of courtesy we should speak English softly when in public. I have been aware of the differences and nuances in language since an early age.

Like many readers of this column, I grew up with English as my language for family and school and Spanish for all other settings. Yet at my English-speaking school I spoke Spanish with my Spanish-speaking friends and classmates outside of class. I spoke Spanish at home with the domestic staff.

I later learned that it is common for children living in a bilingual situation to associate people with a language, as I did. It wasn’t until young adulthood that I spoke Spanish with my parents even though all of my nuclear family was fluent in both English and Spanish. And then it was only when in the company of non-English speakers.

Living in a bilingual environment gave me an interest in English-Spanish interpreting. I would test myself by translating what the newscasters were saying on TV, seeing if I could keep up. I’d race against simultaneous interpreters at events.

I frequently find myself interpreting not just language but also explaining and comparing cultural ideas when interpreting for groups or individuals. That’s because language is much more than a means of communication. A recent exhibit in Chapultepec Castle referred to languages as the links that give meaning to all of a culture’s expressions: cuisine, clothing, dances, fiestas, religious ceremonies, and art. It is through language that ideas, objects, and practices take on meaning. Language is the code through which people perceive the world and construct its significance.

Back in the 16th century, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (also known as Charles I of Spain) was familiar with the nuances of languages and spoke at least five. He is credited with saying “When speaking with God, I speak in Spanish. The language itself suggests graveness and majesty. When I’m with my friends I speak Italian. It is the language of familiarity. I use French to caress; no language is more tender than French. When I need to speak harshly or to threaten I use German. It is rough and vehement.”

By the way the above quote was originally written in Latin.

Charles V must have wondered whether cultures develop as a reflection of language or whether language reflects the people who speak it.

Multilingual Pope Francis used Spanish last month in perhaps his most important public speech since the papal election. Pope Francis offered an apology on behalf of the church for sexual misconduct of the clergy when speaking to a French Catholic network that promotes the rights of children.

Is it significant that the pope used Spanish in this difficult subject? Was he, like Charles V, using Spanish because it was a grave issue? Or did he use Spanish because it is his native language and the one in which he is most likely to fully understand nuanced meaning? Only he knows.

But what we do know is that the non-Spanish speaking part of the world heard the pope’s words in translation, spoken in the language and accent of each country. I hope they all chose an elegant speaker to convey the pope’s message.

When the translator doesn’t match the original speaker in formality and tone, nuance is lost. I dislike how on National Public Radio and other progressive news programs in the United States the translator frequently has a heavy Latino accent that conveys little or no elegance and clashes with the other voices being used on the program.

Intentionally or otherwise, NPR implies that Spanish-speakers in the U.S. are uneducated. In fact many migrants are professionally educated but unable to find work in Latin America and are living in the U.S. doing work outside their professions. The voices used as translators give a biased nuance to the translations themselves.

It was gratifying that when translating the pope’s words from Spanish to English the interpreters used a cultured, standard English voice. I think that is a courtesy due to every Spanish speaker interviewed on radio or television for an English-speaking audience. So frequently original Spanish is correct and elegant, and it deserves to be translated as such in English.

This month Pope Francis will be traveling to the Holy Land with a Jewish rabbi and a Muslim sheikh who will accompany him on the entire trip to Jordan, Israel, and Palestine. You might wonder what language they will speak. Spanish of course. They are all Argentines and long time friends of the ecumenical pontiff.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Courageous heroes

I am humbled by the people I so frequently meet in Mexico who act with grace and courage to make the lives of people around them better. My hero in this matter is Sergio Méndez Arceo, Bishop of Cuernavaca from 1952 to 1982. This past weekend we once again celebrated his deeds with the annual Don Sergio Méndez Arceo National Human Rights forum and awards.

Néstora Salgado García, is the winner of the 2014 individual award. Néstora is a U.S. citizen, born in Mexico. She was critically injured in an automobile accident while visiting Olinalá, Guerrero during a 2002 family visit. Afterward she and her family decided to permanently settle in Olinalá.

Soon Néstora began championing social justice issues. She worked on behalf of women and children against domestic violence. In 2012 she organized volunteer community police to protect against the drug cartels. The Civil Association she led denounced the municipal president for corruption and not supporting the community.

In August 2013 Néstora was arrested and imprisoned in a federal penitentiary. Her award reads “Néstora has been criminalized for organizing the community for its own protection.” It was accepted by her daughter Saira Rodríguez Salgado. Néstora is still imprisoned.

I also met people from the community of Cherán, Michoacán, who won the group prize for defending their forests from illegal logging. That in turn led the people of Cherán to choose to rule their municipality with “usos y costumbres.”

Uses and customs is a legal concept similar to common law. We are seeing “usos y costumbres” adopted more frequently now by indigenous municipalities. It usually involves rejecting civil statute law along with political parties. In November 2011 the Federal Electoral Tribunal ruled in favor of the community, recognizing the demands of Cherán and thereby setting a precedent, recognizing the rights of indigenous people to determine how to elect their own authorities.

The afternoon awards ceremony held in the 16th-century open chapel on the grounds of Cuernavaca’s cathedral was the culmination of a full day of activities. During an earlier forum titled “Human Rights Panorama of Mexico,” Alberto Athié spoke.

Athié is a former Roman Catholic priest, ordained in 1983 at the Basílica of Guadalupe. In 1995 Father Athié served as confessor to Father Juan Manuel Fernández Amenábar, former rector of Mexico’s Legionnaires of Christ Anáhuac University. On his deathbed Fernández Amenábar wrote a letter about how he was abused as a teenager by Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legionnaires of Christ.

Before his death he told Father Athié his story and requested, “At my funeral Mass tell the people that I forgive Marcial Maciel but also tell them I ask for justice.” Athié took this very personally and understood it meant a search for truth even at high personal and professional cost. He made a promise. “I will commit myself, Jose Manuel, to search for justice.” Since that time he has tirelessly struggled on behalf of children sexually abused by persons under the authority of the Catholic Church.

Alberto Athié brought with him to the forum a stunning surprise to those assembled. He held in his hand a copy of a long-buried letter recently provided to him along with many other previously unseen documents by a sympathetic Vatican archivist — perhaps the Edward Snowden of Rome. The letter, dated August 1956, was addressed to the Congregation of the Affairs of Religious — the oversight body for the disciplining of priests and nuns. It was a detailed complaint alleging sexual misconduct and drug abuse by Marcial Maciel written by Cuernavaca’s own Bishop Méndez Arceo!

We always knew Don Sergio to be a great champion of human rights but this was new proof of his courage in taking on an unpopular issue. Revealed documents expose that as a result of this letter an investigation was started during which Marcial Maciel was suspended from his positions in his order. The investigation came to an abrupt close with the death of Pope Pius XII. Maciel was able to resume his positions.

It would be 50 years and five popes before a later investigation determined Marcial Maciel had molested numerous seminarians, married, had multiple mistresses, and fathered children. In the meantime the very conservative order he founded grew to include three bishops, 953 priests, 1877 seminarians and countless faithful members. At the time of the exposure of Maciel’s abuses in 2006, the order was very wealthy.

Athié provided many other details of his long ordeal in seeking justice for the victims of Marcial Maciel. Even though forced out of a still-denying church in 2003, he continued his mission, co-authoring the book “The Will To Not Know.” Visibly emotional, he told us he finally felt vindicated by recent United Nations’ findings and Pope Francis’s apology on behalf of the Catholic Church.

Though Alberto Athié did not win the Sergio Méndez Arceo prize, he received a well-deserved honorable mention and gave us the unexpected gift of hearing Don Sergio speaking from beyond the grave.