21 December 2010

Los Caudillos Famosos - Part Two

Welcome back, friends, Norte Americans, countrymen! Lend me your eyes! I come to joke about Latin American dictators, not to praise them. Anyway, I bring you the second installment in the series Los Caudillos Famosos (The Famous Strongmen). I hope you enjoyed the stories of Dr. Francia, Generalissimo Gomez, El Senor Trujillo, and Porfirio Diaz from Part One. Here is a collection of fun facts and observations about several other noteworthy caudillos.  

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General Antonio de Padua María Severino López de Santa Anna y Pérez de Lebrón (1794-1876), alias "The Eagle," "Napoleon of the West." General Santa Anna served as President of Mexico for eleven non-consecutive terms from 1833 to 1855.

At the Battle of Veracruz against the French in 1838, Santa Anna was hit in the leg by cannon fire. He ordered that his amputated leg, "General Pierna," be buried with full military honors.  

Thereafter, he used a prosthetic leg made of cork. During the Mexican-American War, it was captured by American troops. It is now on display at the Illinois State Military Museum in Springfield, despite the Mexican government repeatedly asking for its return!

In 1844, the 50-year-old Santa Anna married his second wife, the 15-year-old Maria Dolores de Tosta.  They rarely lived together, however, unlike that bastard Edgar Allan Poe and his child bride.  

In 1853, Santa Anna declared himself dictator for life, the "Most Serene Highness."

While exiled in New York City in the late 1860s, he brought the first shipment of chicle, the base for chewing gum, into the United States. A business partner later invented Chiclets. No lie!

A great fan of cockfighting, he reportedly spent vast sums of money on prize roosters.  One prizewinner, "Isla de Rhode Rojo," compiled a 58-0 record and retired to a luxury coop in Cozumel.  

He was a serious collector of Napoleonalia and artifacts from the Napoleonic Wars.  His dream was to build a museum campus in Mexico devoted to the general to be called The Napoleon Complex.

He lived in exile in several other nations in the Americas at different times, including Jamaica, Cuba, Colombia, Staten Island, New York, and St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands.  

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Vargas (seated, left) with fellow caudillo famoso, Generalissimo Frankin Delano Roosevelt, in 1936.

Getúlio Dornelles Vargas (1882-1954), alias "O Pai dos Pobres" ("The Father of the Poor"). Vargas modeled himself after Europe's fascist dictators, if more moderate in actual politics, and was leader of Brazil from 1931-1945 and 1951 to 1954.

Vargas also was called the "Sphinx of the Pampas" because he was born with paws instead of hands.

He had his favorite blend of the beverage mate specially produced for him, delivered on a private mule train from the factory to his home. Such are the perks of power!

After running for president unsuccessfully in 1930, Vargas, a spoil sport, just overthrew the government and made himself chief executive.

Feeling powerless and at the will of his political enemies, Vargas shot himself in 1954, writing in his letter to the Brazilian people that he was "leaving life to enter history (and pseudo-factual blog posts)."

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Manuel Mariano Melgarejo Valencia (1820–1871), President of Bolivia from 1864-1871.

Melgarejo sometimes ordered his generals to frolic or roll around the floor of the national palace for his personal amusement. Don't ask what he made the lower-ranking officers do.

Before entering the military, he had been apprenticed to a notary, where he learned what he prided himself on as "perfect handwriting." My second-grade teacher, Mrs. Petrucco, would have given him a C-.

Melgarejo was said to have given a vast amount of Bolivian territory to Brazil for what he described as a "magnificent" white horse. The amount of land was determined by tracing around the horse's hoof on a map of Bolivia. 

I have discovered through my archival research that Brazil also threw in a naked virgin to sweeten the deal.

According to another rumor, when Germany invaded France in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War, Melgarejo ordered a large part of the Bolivian army be sent to Europe to help defend Paris, a city he admired for its cultural sophistication. He reportedly was unable, however, to locate the city on a map, perhaps because it was stained with hoof-prints.

He insisted on being called The Most Illustrious Man of the Century. Which century, he did not specify. 

When the money supply of pesos dwindled, he issued his own (worthless) currency, called melgarejos. Trust me, they are just as worthless as the crates Confederate and Zimbabwe dollars I have in my safe.

After he had been overthrown and exiled to Peru, he was shot in a "crime of passion" by his lover's angry brother, for attempting to break into their house in Lima.

16 December 2010

Alma-Ata, Father of Apples

A wild apple tree growing outside of Alma-Ata (L); The genetic diversity of apples from twenty-one M. sieversii trees (R) [from ScienceDaily's interesting article].  "Appleseed" Chapman, eat your heart out!

Welcome to the long-overdue Part Three of KGB-Approved Curiosities from Former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. I'm not sure how I can top the historical interest and intrigue of "The Fantastic World of Иван Билибин" and "Faces of Old Samarkand," but I'll essay (!) to do so.  

The city of Alma-Ata, now called Almaty, is the former capital and largest metropolis in the erstwhile Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan.  The city's old name (Alma-Ata) means "Apple-Father," and its current name (Almaty) translates as "Apple-full" in the Kazakh language.  (Because you don't know anyone who speaks Kazakh, you'll have to take my word for it.) 

On the seal of the city of Almaty, a wild snow leopard, commonly kept as a pet by the city's wealthy petrocrats and professional magicians, dines on its favorite fare, wild apple flowers. 

The forests around the city are known for their abundance of wild apple trees. The area near Alma-Alta, populated with the species Malus sieversii, is thought to be the ancestral home of the apple tree. Specimens are noted for their great genetic diversity, with each tree producing unique-looking apples. The apple is a great hybridizer and botanic migrant, and people spread the apple to Europe, then the Americas.  

As you may have guessed, not a very accurate or updated map of Kazakhstan.  It's actually a 1791 French Revolutionary map of La Tartarie Independante qui comprend de Pays des Calmuks, celui des Usbeks, et le Turkestan made with the objective of exploiting the region's ressources de la pomme. 

So why are Kazakh leaders allowing these irreplaceable forests to be cut down to make way for capitalist bourgeoisie suburban housing developments? Maybe its because Kazakhs hate eating healthful apples and drinking delicious cider. Or maybe their mutant apples make poor fare. No one can be sure, but it probably has to do with makin' the $теңге$.  As I say, mo' теңге, mo' проблемы. But an алма a day keeps the врач away!  

Until next time, have a cup of wassail this season in memory of the Father of Apples!

11 December 2010

Los Caudillos Famosos - Part One

Buenos dias, readers!  Today I bring you some entertaining facts about the lives of four Latin American dictators, called caudillos by the locals.  The caudillo usually begins as a military leader with a great charisma and generic promises of popular reforms. The best caudillos, as with any good dictator, build a cult of personality around themselves. Viva la revolucion

Happy 100th birthday, repressive authoritarian government!

Dr. José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia (1766-1840), alias El Supremo, was dictator of Paraguay from its independence in 1814 to his death in 1840. Here are fun facts about his rule:

Dr. Francia insisted that he personally conduct all marriage ceremonies in Paraguay. This included the "animal marriages" between livestock he felt morally justified.

He made everyone raise their hats when he passed, and his hatless subjects had to carry fake hat brims to salute him properly.  I'm not sure exactly what a "fake hat brim" is, but they evidently have them in South America.  

A cat lover, he once ordered all dogs in his domain to be shot, in what later became known as the "Great Dog Massacre."

He appointed himself the Pope of Paraguay, seizing all the Roman Catholic Church's property and possessions, resulting in his excommunication. In a fit of anger on hearing the news, Francia excommunicated his favorite horse, Marcelito.  

Paraguay's first public library, opened in 1836, consisted of the personal collections of his executed political opponents. Francia personally donated over a hundred copies of his self-published autobiography, My Way: How a Simple Country Doctor became Supreme Ruler of the Seventh-Largest Nation in South America.  

A great fan of all things Rousseauian and Japonisme, Dr. Francia closed the borders of Paraguay to all outside cultural and economic contact from 1816 to his death.  

Perhaps because of this cultural isolation, he wore a powdered wig long after it was out of fashion (see above stamp).  

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José de la Cruz Porfirio Díaz (1830-1915)alias El 4th, 6th, e 8th Presidente. His rule known as the Porfiriato. Porfirio Díaz was dictator of Mexico from 1876 to 1911. Here's some interesting trivia about the man, the myth, the caudillo:

His political philosophy was Pan, o palo ("Bread, or the stick"), and he often walked the streets of Mexico City upon a whim, alternatively distributing loaves of bread or sound thrashings with his billiard cue.

A prodigious aphorist, he regularly stayed up late into the night jotting down pithy quotations, finally finding lasting fame with the popular ironic saying, "Poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States!"

In a 1908 interview with the U.S. monthly political rag Pearson's Magazine, the 78-year-old Díaz casually mentioned that he felt that Mexico was ready for democracy and free elections, and he had thought of retiring to a life of sun-drenched leisure on the French Riviera. This comment started the decade-long Mexican Revolution -- best watch out, Fidelito!

In the 1910 election, octogenarian Díaz decided to not retire and ran again. To improve his election prospects, he imprisoned his opponent, Francisco I. Madero. He was almost unanimously reelected! But then all his opponents forced him into exile in France. :(
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"Rectitude, liberty, and work," evidently the formula for successful Dominican palm-tree farming.

Generalissimo Rafael Leónidas Trujillo (1891-1961), alias El Jefe ("The Boss"), rule known as La Era de Trujillo. Rafael Trujillo was dictator of the Dominican Republic from 1930 until his 1961 assassination.

Trujillo built around himself a cult of personality. In 1936, he had Congress rename the capital, Santo Domingo, Cuidad Trujillo ("Trujillo City") in his honor, created a new province named "Trujillo," and christened the D.R.'s tallest mountain Pico Trujillo ("Mt. Trujillo")  
He also had a giant neon sign erected in Santo Domingo that read "God and Trujillo."

Before working as a dictator, Trujillo had jobs as a Morse code telegraph operator and a security guard at a sugar cane mill. Both skills came in handy as dictator.

Trujillo recruited some of the American Negro League's most famous stars, including Satchel Paige, to play on his personal baseball team, paying them handsomely to win the Dominican championship. Most fled the country after they found out how crazy he was.

He owned over two thousand suits and military uniforms, many of them blatant affronts to fashion.

A man known by many nicknames, El Jefe was also called, in various quarters, El Benfactor, El Chivo ("The Goat"), for his penchant for eating tin cans, and Chapitas ("Bottlecaps") for the many military medals he wore and dozen bottles of Coca-Cola he drank todos los dias.

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Gómez wearing his favorite Venezuelan-flag-themed sash.  

General Juan Vicente Gómez (1857-1935), alias El Benemérito ("The Meritorious One"), dictator of Venezuela from 1908 to his death in 1935.  

Gómez, then vice-president, seized power when President Cipriano Castro was in Europe getting medical treatment for a host of venereal diseases.  He originally had been a member of Castro's private militia, which overthrew the Venezuelan government (not very difficult to do) in 1899.  

Although he was never married, Gómez had a total of 15 children with his two primary mistresses, and perhaps as many as 70 other illegitimate children with other women. He naturally appointed many of his scions to public office.  He made his son Guillermo "Minister of Merengue," for example.  

Gómez, like Ronald Reagan, worked as a cowboy before making it in politics.

He was an almost full-blooded Indian, but this does not jive with his amazing mustache-growing ability.  

For the last decade of his rule, he governed the country from his ranch Las Delicias, where, according to his Time obituary, "he sat under a giant rubber tree, feeding peanuts to his pet elephant, beaming fondly at his squalling, illegitimate offspring."

Gómez was also known as El Bagre ("The Catfish") because of his aforementioned prominent and pointed mustache. The name also might have referred to the giant indoor fish tank that the amateur marine biologist had installed in his mansion.  

Justifying his long authoritarian rule, Gómez said he "needed a lifetime to fulfill his political work." He later added that he also needed a lifetime to fulfill his desire for mistresses and oil money.  

As most good dictators are, he was also functionally illiterate. 

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Well, I hope you have enjoyed our little journey into the minds of los caudillos famosos. Look for a future installment with more fascinating and sometimes endearing tales of my favorite Latin American strongmen!

07 December 2010

Irving's Tales of Old Christmas

One of Washington Irving's famous office Christmas parties.

Perhaps you, dear reader, are familiar with Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, or one of its many, seemingly infinite popular culture adaptations. But did you know that 'Boz', in a flagrant violation of transatlantic copyright, stole the atmosphere, the je ne sais quoi, of his heartwarming Yuletide tale from his poor American writing-brother-in-arms, Washington Irving, an author Dickens admitted he read 'two nights out of seven'? Can this nightmare before Christmas even be possible!?

After receiving a lump of coal, mined by child workers, in his stocking, a pensive Boz reflects on his literary crimes. 

Born a true "marble baker" in New York Town in 1783, Washington Irving is best known as the author of those cautionary tales of Dutch-American excess "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and "Rip Van Winkle." But his Christmas stories, set in a semi-fictional English countryside of yore, were just as popular in their day, first appearing in the serialized compilation The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819-20).  

A sketch of Irving, tricorner'd master of the sketch-book.

Irving, despite being a Yank, was hailed by the Briterati as the first writer of European quality America had produced (sorry, "Tenth Muse"). Perhaps this was because Irving established a home base (or "wicket," as it's called in the U.K.) in merry old England, moving there in 1815, after the Irving family business (George Washingtonalia) went under, and living there on and off until 1832.  

Good tidings I bring to you and your kin!  (Careful, don't eat the poison-laden holly!)

While in England, Irving insisted -- perhaps the result of lead poisoning from his favored tricorn hats -- on using a pseudonym for both business and pleasure. These pen-names included Jonathan Oldstyle, Diedrich Knickerbocker, the aforementioned Crayon, Launcelot Langstaff, Irv Washingstein, and James Fenimore Cooperstown.  

Gate-spelling, like constructed ruins, one of the many fads among the Georgian country-estate-set.

Irving wrote five stories in all--"Christmas"; "The Stage-Coach"; "Christmas Eve"; "Christmas Day"; and "Christmas Dinner"--that serve as an abbreviated advent calendar in narrative form.
"Christmas" is an essay extolling the virtues of old English yuletide traditions. Irving writes of the spirit of the season:
Stranger and sojourner as I am in the land -- though for me no social hearth may blaze, no hospitable roof throw open its doors, nor the warm grasp of friendship welcome me at the threshold -- yet I feel the influence of the season beaming into my soul from the happy looks of those around me. Surely happiness is reflective, like the light of heaven, and every countenance bright with smiles and glowing with innocent enjoyment is a mirror transmitting to others the rays of a supreme and ever shining benevolence. He who can turn churlishly away from contemplating the felicity of his fellow beings and sit down darkling and repining in his loneliness when all around is joyful may have his moments of strong excitement and selfish gratification, but he wants the genial and social sympathies which constitute the charm of a merry Christmas.
Okay, so his writing is as antiquated as the fading Christmas traditions he profiles, but his heart's in the right place. 

Decor of yore.

"The Stage-Coach" is an account of Irving's trip to the fictional Bracebridge Hall, during which the author and his riding companions have their Christmas spirit tested by a rowdy gang of highwaymen. The final three stories, "Christmas Eve," "Christmas Day," and "Christmas Dinner," recount the holiday festivities in the Wodeshousian family seat Bracebridge, a place filled with patrician yet rustic good cheer.  Irving writes of Christmas Eve night: 
The party now broke up for the night...As I passed through the hall on the way to my chamber, the dying embers of the Yule clog still sent forth a dusky glow; and had it not been the season when 'no spirit dares stir abroad,' I should have been half tempted to steal from my room at midnight and peep whether the fairies might not be at their revels about the hearth. 
What is the blazes is a "Yule clog"?

Ye Olde Shambolic Caroling in the village church (L), and Christmas conviviality with the Farmer of Christmas Past (R).

Well, I encourage you to check out Irving's tales of Christmas for yourselves.  They are Tiny-Tim-free and heavy-handed moralizing free (well, not entirely). Much to the Ghost of Washington Irving's chagrin, my technophilic and gizmaniacal "friends" tell me that they are copyright-free and easily downloaded to your Kindle, Nook, iPad, iPhone, Android, or SonyReader -- whatever those are.  

A happy Christmas to all, and to all a Curiosity-filled season.®
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