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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

Struck by Lightning

Except in the metaphorical sense – aka Donald Trump -- I hadn’t thought about lightning rods in decades. When I was growing up in the Midwest, every home with aspirations to safety and modernity had them. They were on the peaks of rooftops, where they were intended as the highest possible point to attract and divert lightning from more valuable property and people on the ground. Yet here in Tampa, the lightning capital of North America, I can’t recall ever seeing any.

I guess that’s because almost everything here is new, and I gather from Google that lightning rods now are embedded into construction so that they are not the visible symbols of home protection that they were when I was a child. And almost everywhere, even in suburban sprawl, there’s something higher than the average home to catch the strikes from the sky. I’m remembering a guy I once dated whose father was killed by lightning; he was plowing a big field, and atop his tractor, was the tallest thing around. Very few of us these days find ourselves in circumstances where we are taller than our surroundings, and farmers now drive enclosed tractors that are as safe as cars.

So the good news is that deaths from lightning are way down. A recent syndicated news story said that it caused more than 300 deaths annually in the 1940s – when my friend’s father died – and is down to an average of 31 annual fatalities during the last decade. That is a reduction of 90%, going from something very significant to almost nothing. It’s an especially amazing stat given that the US population then was about 130 million compared with some 330 million now. This vastly reduced death rate also is due to improved emergency treatment, as health care providers have figured out that lightning victims should be treated differently from victims of accidental electrocution. Science marches on. That’s a good thing, and we should stop the anti-science sentiments that dominate so many legislative bodies.

Food Moves On, Too

The other night I heard myself saying to Hubby, “there’s too much cilantro in this guacamole.” My second thought was that I never would have said that to either my parents or his; they wouldn’t have understood the basic words. Many words that everyone uses now would have been akin to a foreign language to them, as the nation’s cuisine has globalized tremendously in the last few decades. World War II began that trend, when millions of Americans went overseas for the first time and discovered new things to eat.

This happened even in different regions of the US. I remember a home economics teacher I once knew – and yes, I’m assuming my readers are old enough to remember “home ec.” She was a young bride during the war, and when her husband was assigned to a training camp in New Jersey, she went with him from Arkansas. A New Jersey neighbor kept inviting her over for “tomato pie,” and she kept evading it, thinking that this would be akin to an apple or cherry pie, but made with tomatoes. Yuck. She finally had to accept, though –and discovered pizza.

I’m also thinking of my picky teenage nephew, who liked only about a half-dozen foods. His mother loved (still does) Tampa’s Columbia Restaurant, and we took him once to the Harbour Island location that enjoyed a brief lifespan. He rejected the menu as unpatriotic: “I want real American food! I want pizza!”

Yet in the growth of food diversity, we also lose some things. Tampa, you know, sometimes is called “The Big Guava” (as opposed to New York’s “Big Apple”) because the Cubans who ultimately built the cigar factories here originally intended to grow guavas. I’ve had enough guavas on my little tree this year that I’m giving them away – and have found native Tampans who are unfamiliar with the fruit. Others fondly remember them from their youth and wonder why stores don’t sell them. Me, too.

Dairy Farm Turned Diverse

I mentioned the cilantro/guacamole thing to my neighbor, who makes excellent Mexican food. She is from Colorado, where there are many people of Mexican descent, but she agreed that these foods were not part of her mother’s cookery either. She also is an expert in American Sign Language and commented that this is an example of the need for vocabulary refreshment, as new words are added all the time. Older sign language also is being revised as attitudes change. The signs for “Japanese” and “Chinese” used to involve a slant eye motion, but because that no longer is considered appropriate, the signs have changed. Like science, language marches on.

We had this conversation in an aisle at Publix, where, sadly, we both were shopping on a Saturday night -- not exactly what we envisioned for Saturday nights when we were young. But it turned out to be an opportunity for me to be surprised at the diversity of our Mango store, as it was full of people I don’t see shopping on weekdays. When we moved here 45 years ago, everyone I knew in the Brandon area was a conventional white American, and the shopping center that Publix now anchors was a dairy farm (with peacocks!). It struck me Saturday night that things truly have changed.

The first I noticed was a girl, perhaps eleven or twelve, loudly bossing her younger brother. There’s nothing unusual about that, except that she was wearing a hijab. Along with pants that replicated the American flag. No one had told her that she wasn’t equal to her brother, who wore sports clothing. Their sister – probably barely old enough to drive – also adorned herself in very colorful clothes, including a yellow hijab with flashing faux gemstones.

Seffner and Thonotosassa always have had African-American enclaves, but recent years have brought many more to Mango, an old community between the two. I had gone to the store in a rather bad mood, but began to smile when a little black boy, probably about three, came down the aisle calling, “watch out!” “No,” his embarrassed mother gently reprimanded, “you’re supposed to say, ‘excuse me.’”

Then there was the slight dark-skinned man, probably from Southeast Asia, who hesitated before saying, “Excuse me, ma’am,” and pointed to something I had dropped. And a guy similar to me who was accompanied by four young kids, doubtless visiting grandchildren. They were offering all sorts of buying opportunities, while he tried to focus on a list his wife probably created. Times have changed: There’s no way in the world that my grandmother would have sent my grandfather to the store on a Saturday night with four kids in tow! She couldn’t have even envisioned the possibility.

Most remarkable, though, was that I saw at least three couples shopping together who seemed to be gay men. One was a very big football-sized black man with a smallish white man. There was a time not so long ago when that would have been an invitation to lynching, and I am so glad that social progress also marches on.


Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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