Tag Archives: United States

Celebrating Cinco de Mayo – with a ‘mutunt’ burrito

From a 1901 Mexican history booklet

From a 1901 Mexican history booklet

One hundred and fifty five years ago today a poorly equipped Mexican army defeated Napolean III’s French troops at the Battle of Puebla.

The victory, part of the Franco-Mexican War, was more symbolic than actual. A year later a French force of 30,000 defeated the Mexican army, captured Mexico City, and set up the short-lived Second Mexican Empire.

The symbolism persisted, though, as Mexicans celebrated Cinco de Mayo (‘Fifth of May’), casting the French defeat as a symbol of Mexican national unity and pride.

All this goes some way to explaining why many people in Mexico’s largest neighbor will spend today eating tacos, drinking tequila, and wearing questionable sombreros. Cinco de Mayo may be a big deal in Mexico, but across the border it’s a wider, and widely observed, celebration of Mexican-American culture.

It’s mostly news to me, of course. I’d been educated on the day by my wife, who grew up in Los Angeles, but I didn’t realize its all-pervasive sweep until I relocated to the States.

The sushirrito.

The sushirrito.

Thoughts of Mexico, and food, and the U.S., today bring me back to the first time I visited the country. Back in the 1990s I travelled to San Francisco for a short visit, staying with friends. My lodgings were in the Mission District, and my staple meal was the burrito.

Not just any burrito, mind you. Without knowing its legendary reputation, my friends and I ate daily at La Tacqueria, at Mission and 25th.

The burrito was my one decent meal a day – loaded with rice, refried beans, and meat, and accompanied by a bag of chips, it covered most of the food groups I needed. A steaming, satisfying, beef-laden madeleine, it was so good that I returned with my wife, on a visit to San Francisco years later, to sample it again.

I’m closer to La Tacqueria than previously nowadays, but I’m still a 90-minute flight from that burrito. I also live in a town that offers not just burritos, but burritos and beyond. And so, this Cinco de Mayo, I’ll be doing the (to many) unthinkable – celebrating with a sushirrito.

It may be a fad, a ‘mutant food‘, or something that irks the purists, but believe me it tastes good. Well, the one at Teppanyaki Hut on Portland’s Mississippi Avenue does.

So, feliz Cinco de Mayo. Or, itadakimasu!

La Tacqueria, San Francisco,  2011. Pic: Clare Kleinedler

La Tacqueria, San Francisco, 2011. Pic: Clare Kleinedler

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A nightmare from which I’m trying to awake

James Joyce, Zurich, 1915.

James Joyce, Zurich, 1915.

Mr. Deasy halted, breathing hard and swallowing his breath.

“- I just wanted to say,” he said. “Ireland, they say, has the honour of being the only country which never persecuted the jews. Do you know that? No. And do you know why?”

He frowned sternly on the bright air.

“- Why sir?” Stephen asked, beginning to smile.

“- Because she never let them in,” Mr. Deasy said solemnly.

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By a curious twist I read these words this morning, on a day of protests and court applications and outrage in the United States.

They are from the ‘Nestor’ episode of James Joyce’s novel “Ulysses”, spoken to Stephen Dedalus by the small-minded headmaster Deasy. And spoken with great animation – Deasy has just chased a departing Dedalus to the school-gate to stress his anti-Semitic argument.

The words sum up a petty bigotry that, Joyce suggests, was to be found among sections of Dublin’s middle class a century ago. The sentiments can of course be found against another religion, in another country, 100 years later.

And so Joyce’s novel, published in 1922, is – among many other things – a fitting read for the times we’re in.

The book is a work of immigration. The author wrote it in self-imposed exile; having departed Dublin in 1904, his peripatetic lifestyle led him to Trieste, Zurich and Paris. One of the main reasons for this exile was the burgeoning Irish nationalist movement, nationalism being, as Dedalus famously points out to Deasy, one of “those big words…that make us so unhappy”.

Drawing of Leopold Bloom by James Joyce

Drawing of Leopold Bloom by James Joyce

Immigration, religion (another of Dedalus’ big words), and their effects down the generations are central to the novel, principally by way of Leopold Bloom. The book’s central character,  Bloom is the son of a Hungarian Jew who emigrated to Ireland and converted to Protestantism.

Despite Bloom’s own conversion to Catholicism, he encounters an ingrained, nod-and-wink anti-Semitism as he navigates his way around Dublin on June 16, 1904. At one point The Citizen – a nationalist and xenophobe – talks, in Bloom’s company, of Jews “swindling peasants… and the poor of Ireland. We want no more strangers in our house”.

Bloom retains his composure in the face of such bigotry. His thinking, his behaviour, and his dignity represent Joyce’s riposte to the forces of religion, colonialism (by way of England) and nationalism.

Bloom is a true citizen, a pacifist, a Dubliner with a Jewish background, an individual who is a man first, an Irishman second. He may feel conflicted at times, but this is the price of his virtue of moderation.

Bloom doesn’t make an appearance in the ‘Nestor’ episode, and so does not hear his young friend Dedalus utter one of the most resonant lines in “Ulysses”:

History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.

As many might suggest, this can apply to the present too.
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A 70-year-old note to a new President

Woody Guthrie, New York, 1943 Pic: Life

Woody Guthrie, New York, 1943
Pic: Life

Amid the rancor, shock, violence and triumphalism of recent days I’ve been thinking about one American, whose vision of the country stands in bold relief to much of what I’ve read and heard in recent months.

Woody Guthrie wasn’t bound for glory as a progressive hero – not at first, paper at any rate. He was the son of a Texas landowner. His father was involved in the lynching of two people and was, Guthrie later alleged, a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

The young Woody would stand with his father while the latter, who was involved in 1920s Oklahoma politics as a conservative Democrat, gave stump speeches.

That’s where ‘official’ politics ended for Guthrie, however. In 1931, aged 19 and an aspiring songwriter, he set out from Texas for California. Over the next three decades he would travel and work all over the United States, appearing on radio in LA, recording for Moses Asch in New York City, and penning songs for the Bonneville Power Administration in Portland, Oregon.

In the process he would write hundreds of songs, including one about the father of our current President-Elect. More famously, his “This Land Is Your Land” has become something of an alternative national anthem. Other songs – “Do Re Mi”, “Pastures of Plenty”, “So Long It’s Been Good To Know Ya”, have seeped into the cultural consciousness.

This week, though, I’ve been listening to a song Guthrie wrote but never recorded. In January 1948 he read in the New York Times of a plane crash in the San Joaquin Valley in central California. Twenty-eight migrant farm workers, who were accompanied by four Americans, died when the plane transporting them back to Mexican crashed.

Outraged that the Times and radio reports named the deceased Americans but simply labelled the 28 workers “deportees”, Guthrie wrote his last great song, “Deportee“.

Among the song’s seven verses are the lines:
“Some of us are illegal, and some are not wanted,
Our work contract’s out and we have to move on;
Six hundred miles to that Mexican border,
They chase us like outlaws, like rustlers, like thieves.”

Plus ca change. Guthrie’s pal Pete Seeger would later popularize “Deportee”, singing it at concerts. Dozens of others have since recorded it.

In a week when a 70-year-old song has become relevant again, when phrases like “great, great walls” and “11 million illegals” are bandied around with menace, it’s worth a listen.

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What a two-decade old photo taught me

deathvalley

#1

Nevada was in the news this week.

And not the good Nevada – the 24 hour, ‘where’s my credit card, actually where’s my trousers?’ Vegas Strip Nevada. Or the eerie lunar landscape Nevada, beloved by hippies. Or even the escape-from-everything-and-start-anew Nevada.

Nope. Instead we had the Nevada of furious politicking, of promises and press conferences, of caucuses and crackpots. Of, worse still, Donald Trump.

But the headlines from the Silver State put me in a nostalgic mood, as did a picture I came across, taken by a friend en route from California to Nevada almost 20 years ago.

It shows a 21-year-old, tired and likely hungover, Irishman posing on a sandy hillside in bleaching sunshine, the desert floor in the distance. My recollection is that this was taken in August 1999, somewhere west of Death Valley on Route 190, shortly before a group of pals and I drove into the basin and on to Las Vegas.

The previous evening had been spent sleeping in the backseat of our rental van parked somewhere on the edge of Yosemite National Park. The following night was a sleepless one, which started with a spectacular thunderstorm on the Vegas city limits and ended at 6am the next morning, sipping refreshments in the dollar slots and wondering where the last 12 hours went.

Then, after a couple of hours’ sleep, we drove out of Vegas and across the United States.

As can probably be gathered from the picture above, my worries at the time barely extended beyond the ensuring 24 hours.

I recall that I had to get to New York City by a certain date to catch a flight back to San Francisco. I had nowhere to stay on the West Coast but I figured that would work itself out. In the end it did, via a payphone call from a Greenwich Village bar to pals in the Sunset who had a spare mattress on their floor.

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#2

After that I had a flight booked out of SF to Dublin. Friends were returning to college or work but I didn’t have a job lined up, or a place to live. It didn’t bother me much. It worked itself out too. The rest, as always, is history. Here I am.

That brief, blazing roadside stop on 190 came to mind this week as I spent too much time testing my blood pressure limit, reading about megalomaniacal politicians, the cracks in the Chinese economy, the weakening of the euro  – all the good psychic dread stuff.

As I did it occurred to me that I need to balance this stuff up. I need to let go more often, to let the future happen.

Above all, I need that guy in the photo to swing by for an hour a week, to set me straight. And I need his hair.

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Exiles – from Oscar Wilde to Oscar Wao

Brief-Wondrous-Life-of-Oscar-WaoThe Irish have a diaspora.

More than that – the Irish have The Diaspora. It’s not just a history or a culture or another word for ’emigrants’. It’s far (and away) more.

We even have a Minister for The Diaspora, who this week represented us (them?) in New York.  (We don’t let our diaspora vote, mind you, but that’s another matter.)

From primary school upwards we’re taught about this phenomenon of Irish exile. From the fifth century St Brendan in a currach on the freezing Atlantic, to the 17th-century Flight of the Earls, to the coffin ships departing Cobh in the 1840s.

And on. From those who left in the lean 1930s to the departees of the stagnant ’50s and ’80s – right up to the most recent wave of emigrants, those who left following the economic crash of the late 2000s.

The story of The Diaspora isn’t confirmed to history, academic reviews or news stories. It informs a large part of the national character. It may also go some way to explaining the Irish people’s reputation for melancholy.

It’s also a narrative that’s wound its way through Irish culture and society, a subject in folk memory, books, poetry and song.

Living in Ireland then you’d be forgiven for thinking, at times, that we’re the only country with a diaspora.

Not so, of course. And if you need reminding of this I recommend a novel by Dominican writer Junot Diaz,  that I came across (and tore through) last week.

Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde

The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao taught me about a number of things: the often-tortuous post-colonial history of the Dominican Republic; enough street Spanish to eat, drink and drive my way around Santo Domingo; multiple details of the Watchmen comic book series; the lows of high-school life in 1980s Paterson, New Jersey, and more besides.

It also taught me that the Dominican Republic has a diaspora which in many ways out-Irishes even the Irish one, when it comes to the wrench of exile and the push-pull lure of return.

In terms of emigration the two countries have a lot in common. Seismic social events of the past 150 or so years – a Famine in our case, a brutal 20th century dictatorial regime in the DR’s – catapulted huge sections of our peoples to a common destination, the United States.

And in each case emigration’s two-way street has seen the phenomenon of the returning emigrant, or at least their returning dollars. (It’s no surprise then that Diaz’s novel reaches its harrowing conclusion with the return of the prodigal Dominican son.)

The Irish had an Oscar Wilde, a Dublin-born writer who left to achieve fame and, ultimately, infamy in London. Diaz presents us with Oscar Wao, the overweight New Jersey nerdboy whose descent is intricately linked to his outsider status.

As post-colonial nations both the DR and Ireland are dealing with the often-blinding historical hangover that our histories force upon us.

Oscar Wao

Oscar Wao

But Diaz suggests something more at play, hinting that a fuku, a hex, may lie upon the Dominican diaspora, forcing and following them across the Atlantic to the east coast of the United States.

Oscar Wao finally breaks free of this, at great cost, as Diaz offers up a tragic, hopeful ending to his novel.

Have the Irish a fuku of their own – a jinx born from dire domestic circumstances that’s forced emigration and its rendering effect upon the country?

After centuries has this finally been dispelled? The existence of a Diaspora minister would suggest not.

Perhaps there’s something we can learn from the brief, wondrous life of Oscar Wao.
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