Tlacochahuaya – a volunteer citizen says ‘adios’

It’s not enough to become bilingual. As I achieved fluency, I looked for ways to keep my Spanish in use. Eventually left a suburban congregation to join a Hispanic one in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Through my professional contacts I made a bridge to the majority culture. I made friends, and I advocated for them on immigration issues.

Ten weeks of immersion stoked a desire to return to Mexico, not as a gringo tourist but as a contributing member of a community. I volunteered a couple times but the assignments didn’t involve close, personal relationships. I wanted to be involved with people and engaged in their community. Then I volunteered with Fundación en Vía as an English teacher in Oaxaca. The English classes complement the micro-credit and business training the Fundación gives indigenous women. I already knew effective teaching required rapport if not intimacy.

Oaxaca is a small, vibrant city in southern Mexico that retains its indigenous roots and cultures. I elect to live with an ordinary family near the Fundación and teach in the outlying Zapotec town of San Jeronimo Tlacochahuaya (thirty minutes by bus from the center of Oaxaca). The three other teachers – Nora, Nicola, and Augie are just out of college or grad school – are also volunteers. They teach the children.

It’s midafternoon when the four of us get off the local bus at the município or city hall and set up our ‘classrooms’ beneath the open air arcade or portales fronting the city hall. Each ‘classroom’ consists of a table, a white board with a few markers, and some folding chairs. We write the day’s lesson plan on the white board along with key words or lessons for the evening. Then we bask in the warmth of late afternoon sunlight while we wait for our students to arrive – three classes for children, one for adults.

Tlacochahuaya (Tcla-co-cha-why-a) is an agricultural community nestled in a broad valley bounded by dark, volcanic ridges rising high above fields of maíz, frijol, calabasas (corn, beans, squash), and maguey, an agave that is se source of mescal, the local liquor. This município sits high on a slope facing the fawn-colored parroquia or church across the square or zocalo. From the portales we look across the valley to the dark mountains beyond.

The Fundación’s curriculum is well-designed for children but I don’t think it will work for adults. As an adult language-learner, I know adult students can learn faster and deeper than children, but I also know they have an adult inhibitions and self-censorship that rarely bothers children. With this in mind, I alter the curriculum activities. As a recent adult language student, I know how they feel; at times I still feel inhibited. As their teacher, I’m also something of a student in Spanish. Our immediate goal isn’t the precise mastery of grammar rules but becoming confident in communication.

My small class consists of Manuel, Elizabet, her daughter Monica. Elizabet is in her late forties and I don’t know if she has a job. Monica is a nurse and new mother in her twenties. And Manuel says he’s forty-five and had English classes many years before. He is entering at mid-term and already more advanced. My predecessor taught his last class the week before I arrived and I have no idea how much or how well he taught them. Our first class is something of a blind date.

What a surprise and pleasure to discover they already know more English than the curriculum provides for and eager to push on. Clearly, they aren’t ‘blank slates’ on whom I will lay the curriculum. They are insipient English speakers and I must begin where they are and go forward from there.

Class preparation hinges on several questions: What do adults find hardest to learn at first? What were my barriers to learning?   How did teachers help me overcome them? What spurred me to learn? I spend more prep time working on the answers to these questions than on grammar. Our classers quickly become interactive – like‘improv’ theater – in which we react to and incorporate what we bring to class in the way of questions and observations.

Their questions of ‘how do you say …?’ or ‘what’s the Spanish equivalent of …?’ are as integral to learning as a lesson about placing adjectives BEFORE the nouns they modify. English goes bottom up, empirically compiling details (modifiers) with the noun as a kind of summary of all: ‘The tall, green fir TREE.’ Spanish is more top-down, categorically starting with the noun and then adding details (modifiers) as subordinate aspects: ‘El ÁRBOL, alto y verde’ (The tree, tall and green). Is there any inherent logic about where the adjective is placed? Their simple, direct questions cause me to think about English in a way I haven’t thought of it before.

Making out vocabulary cards, I choose words relevant to their lives and contain letter combinations and sounds largely unknown in Spanish: ‘th’, ‘ee’, ‘oo’, ‘lk’,’rn’ and many others. Not only must they recognize the sound when they read them silently, but it is important to train their tongues to make the sounds. Elizabet, Monica, and Manuel practice training their tongues on words like ‘with’, ‘tooth’, ‘geese’, ‘born’, walk, and many others.

I know this is harder than it seems. Even if the brain recognizes the word, the tongue either fails to make the sound in speech or rebels against making it. At one time, I had to learn new letters and sounds, such as trilling the double ‘r’ as in perro (dog) or making a ‘yj’ sound for the double ‘ll’ in llamar (to call). Now they see me struggling to pronounce Tlacochahuaya.

My Spanish is very good they tell me and try, gently, to correct my rendition of the town’s name. The ‘tl’ combination is a common sound in indigenous place names: Tlaxiaco, Tlacolula, Tlaxcala, and Tlatelolco. Mexicans say them easily but most Anglos don’t. ‘Tl’ isn’t a consonant combination we recognize in English – we’re familiar with ‘lt’. The ‘tl’ sound starts with the tongue near the back of the pallet and then rolls forward. I practice Tlacochahuaya almost daily for weeks until, at last, I get reasonably close – close enough that no one misunderstands me but still short of a native’s rendition.

Besides the uncommon sounds of English, we work on the structure of sentences, the syntax, the inherent ‘logic’ of putting together nouns and verbs and modifiers in a way that makes sense, in a way that completes a comprehensible picture of an object, a person, or an action. The more I work on this, the more I understand how the relationships among the parts of speech differ from language to language.

The verb ‘to do’ in English is simpler than hacer, its Spanish counterpart. ‘Do’ is an all-purpose verb covering a variety of actions (doing). Hacer not only means ‘to do’ in a general sense, but also means ‘to make’ as in constructing or creating something. For my students, writing and understanding sentences with the verb ‘to do’ is like working with only half of a verb. They need to learn ‘make’ for the other half. Teaching the verb ‘to be’ is much easier because English has only one form while Spanish has two. Prepositions are also trickier because those similar to English aren’t exact. The preposition en means ‘in’ but also ‘at’ or ‘on’ depending on the context. The preposition ‘por’ means ‘for’ in the English sense but may also mean ‘through’, ‘by’, ‘by means of’, or ‘cause of’. Teaching and learning these is a strugge.

Monica, Elizabet, and Manuel are eager learners, and return each time filled with questions about a phrase, or how to say a Spanish phrase in English. As homework, I ask each to take from their library a child’s book in English and read it aloud to themselves. Reading aloud makes an eye-ear-tongue connection. In one act, they recognize the letters, hear them pronounced as a word, and train their tongue to make the sound. For my last class, I want them to read aloud a passage from their book and explain what it means (in English, of course). Their explanations will tell me how well they understand what they read. Manuel brings a child’s story, Elizabet and Monica share a children’s book about Mexico. The reading goes smoothly, I know they can now read, understand, and explain in English.

As the last hour winds down, I tell them this is my last class, and introduce them to their new teacher, a new volunteer with several years’ experience as a teacher. Although they have had short-term, volunteer teachers before, and although I told them I would be with them for five weeks, they seem shocked.

‘When are you coming back?’ Elizabet asks plaintively.

Si Dios quiere, un año’ (God willing, in a year). In my mind, I want to do this again.

And so class ends with the ‘abrazos y besos’ or hugs and kisses that are the customary Mexican gestures of friendship. It’s evening and we wait in the cobbled street to catch the collectivo to Oaxaca.

I loved spending the afternoons with people as beautiful as their valley. Standing beneath the squash-colored portales of the município, I often gazed across the shady park of fig and cedar trees to the dark, hazy mountains beyond the valley. I will miss looking through the small gap where the solitary, palm tree stands shaggy-headed. But I will take away memories of the broad valley lying green-gold in the enchanting amber light that comes just before the puesta del sol. I will miss Tlacochahuaya, whose name defies my attempts to pronounce it correctly. I will continue to practice it until I return to teach again. Adios Tlacochahuaya.

My work in Tlacochahuaya is done and I’m sad to see it end because it is going so well. For a few weeks, we struggled together to produce learning, and in the process, we opened ourselves to each other. That’s the satisfaction of volunteering, it is inherently real work. And work, whether volunteer or paid, is an honorable and integral part of the larger social fabric. As a volunteer, I contribute toward the fabric of Oaxacan society and feel I am something of an oaxaqueño. Volunteering isn’t simply an activity, with a true heart, it may be a form of citizenship.

La tortilla – in praise of the humble

OAXACA, México

‘Don Rodrigo, es tiempo, el desayuno,’ Doña Estela sings out, calling me to breakfast. I begin the day with huevos revueltos (scrambled eggs), frijoles negros (black beans), hot chocolate, and tortillas wrapped in a cloth to keep them soft and warm. After several weeks in Oaxaca, it’s a reflex to load a tortilla with eggs and beans, fold it, and eat it with my fingers. On other days, I breakfast on chilaquiles, quartered tortillas lightly fried, simmered until soft in red or green salsa, and topped with onions or an egg. This breakfast will last me until mid-afternoon.

Nothing is as versatile as corn tortillas. They’re so ubiquitous I used to take them for granted; worse yet, I hardly noticed them in my rush to savor the moles, salsas, and various fillings and toppings. Yet, corn and tortillas long precede moles and salsas. They are the foundation of Mexican meals if not its culture.

Maíz or corn originated in Central America and nourished the indigenous people just as the bison nourished the tribes on the North American plains. Everything about the forty varieties of red, black, yellow, and white maíz is used. Stalks are fed to cattle, the totomoxtle (husk) becomes a wrapper for tamales, elote (‘sweet corn’) is eaten fresh or cooked, and the huitlacoche (a black fungus) is a delicacy eaten fresh or added to soups and sauces. As a Minnesota farm boy, I knew corn largely as the food for cattle and hogs.

The versatile tortillas are believed to have originated with the Mayans some 10,000 years ago. Whether true or not, tortillas predate the Spanish conquest by centuries if not millennia. Until relatively modern times, most individuals – except the elite – ate their food from a large leaf, half a dried gourd, or from a tortilla. Not only did the tortilla provide nourishment, it evolved into various forms to serve as edible plates and bowls. The humble tortilla is so important that Doña Estela doesn’t consider her table fully set until it has a basket or two of warm tortillas. They are as necessary as napkins – if not more important.

At the Saturday tianguis (market) in Tlaxiaco, I come upon two Mixteca women breaking chunks of white stone with hammers and putting the small pieces into quart-sized plastic bags.

‘Why are you smashing the rock?’ I ask.

‘This is cal,’ one of them says. ‘It’s a special stone we need for making tortillas. We can’t make tortillas without it,’ she adds, filling the bag and setting it atop the others for sale. Seeing my perplexity at her answer, she tells me how the cal is part of making tortilla flour.

Cal is slaked lime and when crushed, she mixes it with dried corn and water, boils it for twenty minutes in a clay pot and sets it aside to cool overnight. In the morning, when the kernels are soft, she drains the water and removes the shells from the kernels. After draining and rinsing the corn several times more, she grinds the kernels. After moistening the meal, she kneads it to make the masa or dough. Making tortillas is a lot of hard work. Like most urban Mexicans, Doña Estela buys tortillas at a shop or occasionally makes them from ready-made masa. But Tlaxiaco is a town in the mountains of northwestern Oaxaca, a place where the people still speak Mixteco, adhere to Mixtec culture, and make their own tortillas.

Hungry at mid-afternoon, I stop at a puesto (food stand) and ask the woman for a tlayuda. This is a particularly Oaxacan dish and one of the many forms that tortillas take. Taking a fresh one as large as a pizza, she bakes it for a moment on a comal, the large, stone pan atop a charcoal brazier. Then she turns it over and spreads the tlayuda with some fat and bean paste before adding shredded cabbage, pulled chicken, avocado slices, queso fresco (Oaxacan cheese), and salsa. Folding the tlayuda over the filling, she seals the edges, and cooks both sides before sliding it onto a plate for me. It’s hot, savory, and enough food for the day!

When I eat dinner on the street or in a café, I order chalupas, a crispy boat layered with white beans, cheese and tomatoes. One day I met my friend Rosario for antiojos (snacks) and ordered sopes, a small, thick tortilla, deep-fried and topped with refried black beans, lettuce, cheese, vegetables, meat and salsa. It’s a finger food, like a tostada, and ideal for snacking at an outdoor café.

On the days when I teach English in Tlacochahuaya, I eat lunch at the Instituto Cultural de Oaxaca and order a quesadilla, a folded tortilla filled with Oaxacan cheese, sliced tomatoes, and squash flowers. It’s a light meal but hearty enough to carry me through the afternoon class until I return home for la cena, or the late evening snack.

In Oaxaca, we normally eat the plato fuerte, (main meal) at mid-afternoon. Doña Estela keeps many recipes in her head but she rarely repeats a menu. Our platos fuertes include grilled fish, chicken, and pork but always with tortillas. One day we eat memelas, tortillas with fluted edges smeared with bean paste and garnished with cheese, salsa, and onions. The lighter evening meals include sopa de tortilla (tortilla soup) made of chicken broth, shredded carrots, or onion, and served with tortillas.

Tortillas have many permutations depending on what part of Mexico we’re in. When I was a consultant in Guadalajara, I often ate supper on the street at a puesto selling taquitos, small, tortillas. My favorites were called the gringa and consisted of two small tortillas cooked with shredded cheese between them that I rolled up and filled with my choice of meat, salsa, guacamole, and onion.

Tortillas are essential to enchiladas, the less common efrijolada, a soft tortilla dipped in black bean sauce and topped with cheese, onion, and parsley, or the entomatada, a folded tortilla dipped in tomato sauce, garnished with queso fresco, white onions, and parsley. As a snack, I often eat a flauta, a deep-fried, rolled tortilla that looks like an egg-roll filled with cheese or chicken, and topped with cream or guacamole.

And for postre (at the end, or dessert), a favorite is the empanada, a turnover filled with sweet or savory stuffing of sweet potato, yam, or squash flowers, and then baked and topped with a sweet syrup.

Consumption of tortillas in the United States exceeds that of bagels or croissants. Although we expect to see tortillas, along with chips and salsa, as part of the meal in a Mexican restaurant, the tortilla’s significance remains largely unnoticed and unknown among non-Mexicans.

But the tortilla still shines like the sun in Mexico. It plays the leading role at the center of everyday dining. The tlayudas, memelas, chilaquiles, and other forms of the tortilla vary widely from region to region, cultural group to cultural group, and family to family. All are genuine, and variation is part of the tortilla’s virtue. No matter how a corn tortilla is dressed and served, it is still the foundation of a proud culinary heritage. And those who know its history and secrets, are connected – however invisibly – to a past far deeper and richer than any they’ve known before.



What is time? And what time is it?

New Year’s 2015

I don’t know how many times I’ve heard Americans say things like: ‘You can’t depend on Mexicans, they’re always late.’ Or: ‘Why can’t they show up when they’re supposed to?’  Or: ‘Well, you know, they’re on Mexican time.’

The phrase ‘Mexican time’ is sometimes a sympathetic phrase and at other times it’s an epithet.  It depends on who says it, to whom it’s said, and why.  Why are American travelers so annoyed when services or appointments don’t happen promptly on their timetable?  It’s culture.

When my friends Juan and María invite me to a family dinner in Minnesota, they say: ‘Come any time after 4:00.’  Just to be sure, I ask if they mean 4:00 as in ‘Mexican time’ or in American or ‘gringo time’.  We laugh at this because we both understand the cultural differences in ideas about time in Mexico and the United States.

I tell them I’ll arrive at 4:00 p.m. ‘Mexican time’ because I’ve learned an early arrival isn’t a virtue.  I don’t want to be the first one at the party.  Besides, I know the party really starts much later.  Nonetheless, my grasp of ‘Mexican time’ is still faulty, and when I arrive at 5:00 or 5:30, I’m still among the first to show up.  If I show up that late for an American invitation, the host will be upset; 4:00 means 4:00.

Time, as an idea and as a reality, differs across American and Mexican cultures.  What is ‘time’?  Astrophysicists are still debating whether time really exists.  Without going into the theories of time, it is enough to say the operational ideas of time in Mexico and the United States reflect their respective histories, cultural origins, and daily realities. The idea of time influences social conventions, expectations, and customs.  American cultural ideas about time are embedded in everyday speech.  The phrase: ‘Time is money’ epitomizes the Yankee notion of time.

A clock had little relevance to daily life when I was growing up on our farm.  Time played out as a sequence of chores and tasks without a definite beginning or end.  Each day, we milked cows at daybreak, raked hay after the dew dried, ate dinner at midday (somewhere between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.), and then built fences, harvested corn, or plowed the stubble until sunset.  That was about as definite as our time could be (except for church at 10:30 a.m. on Sunday morning).  We lived on ‘rural time’ until the mid-1960s, as did all but the most urbanized Americans.

‘Mexican time’ and ‘rural time’ share a lot in common because Mexico was a very rural nation until very recently.  ‘Mexican time’ and American ‘rural time’ move according to interlocking cycles: The daily one of milking and tending animals; the annual one of planting, cultivating, and harvesting.  Rural people don’t ‘punch the clock’.  Hours matter less than the completion of one task before starting another.  And if a task takes too long, it often bumps a chore of lesser importance.  ‘Mexican time’ and American ‘rural time’ contain an inherent latitude or courtesy, understood by all, to accommodate the unforeseen events that otherwise cause someone to arrive ‘late.’

But there are some exceptions.  In Puebla, when my friend Maribel invited me to the surprise party for her eighteen year-old niece, she sent me the address with explicit instructions to arrive at 2:30 – ‘al punto’.   ‘Al punto’ means ‘on the dot’ (punto) at 2:30 p.m. sharp so everyone would be ready to surprise the neice when she arrived.

When someone agrees to meet you ‘al punto’, treat it as a gift because it is.  It means your friend will put the promise to meet you ahead of anything else that might intrude.  ‘Al punto’ means giving control of your time to someone else.  I’ve had very few social meetings ‘al punto’ in Mexico.  Ordinarily, we meet at an approximate time; neither of us feels abashed to be fifteen minutes ‘late’ nor do we feel a need to arrive on the dot.  Apologies aren’t necessary or expected.

American rural (and Mexican) time is as idiosyncratic and as regular as my pulse.  ‘Mexican time’ is more subjective and fluid than ‘American time’.  My Mexican friends regard their time as an integral part of themselves, it’s a form of personal property.  I have time, it is mine, and it goes with me everywhere.  You have time, too; it’s your personal possession to use as you see fit.  In Mexico, the clock is more of a guide for the round of daily chores.  In the U.S., we’ve given the clock authority to govern our way of life, telling us what we will do, and when we will do it.  We’ve elevated punctuality to a virtue and relegated tardiness to a vice.  Only celebrities can get away with being ‘fashionably late.’

Why do Americans and Mexicans experience time differently?  Take a glance at our respective national and social histories to see the difference.  For centuries, each American city and town set its clocks by the sun.  Time was local, relative, and met the community’s need.  ‘Rural time’ was the only ‘time’ in the U.S. until the economy and society were transformed by the construction of transcontinental railroads, growing urbanization, and industrial mass production.

Railroad companies created ‘standard time’ in the 1880s so trains could keep schedules (a point of pride) and avoid collisions (a necessity).  Industrial mass production created assembly lines of highly integrated processes requiring intricately timed actions.  Factory workers had to show up ‘on time’ so the production lines functioned.  Nothing could be permitted to slow or stop production.  Laborers worked ‘by the clock,’ productivity was measured in ‘man-hours’.  Time-and-motion studies determined how to make each worker more productive by accelerating each production step.  Punctuality as an industrial necessity was elevated to an American virtue.  Along the way, the American idea of time ceased to be a subjective, personal property and became an objective, factor beyond individual control.  Time is money.  Workers sold their ‘time’ in exchange for wages.  Institutions control people by controlling their time.

Meanwhile, Mexico developed by a different course of events and influences.  Railroads arrived late in Mexico, industrial mass production didn’t develop deep roots, and urbanization began very recently.  Until the 1950s, most Mexicans lived in impoverished rural communities and the sense of ‘rural time’ is deeply embedded in the culture.  Modern ‘Mexican time’ retains much of its traditional rural fluidity.  Sitting in meetings, I’ve seen the late arrivals quietly greet each person in the room before taking their seats.  Time is personal and social courtesy trumps the clock and the agenda.

By now you may see the cultural divergence in the approach to time.

But there is a further element to the cultural idea of time that leads us toward cultural metaphysics.  For many of the indigenous people of Mexico, time was and remains, circular.  The Aztecs, Zapotecs, and Mayans developed sophisticated systems of astronomy and mathematics.  From these they produced elaborate calendars of predictive cycles within cycles; lunar calendars based on an idea of time that circles back on itself.  Western culture takes a different approach, seeing time as possessing linear properties in which events don’t repeat themselves exactly.  The idea of time, like the language, is an inherent part of the culture we are in.  So, if you’re an American in Mexico, and feel frustrated because things don’t move as fast or as punctually as you wish,

Try this:

Step back, take a deep breath, and relax.  Accept the reality of being in a place where time has a different dimension; where the rules of time are as different as the language.

Treat the ‘delay’ as an integral part of your experience.  Take the opportunity to slow down, to enjoy the moment; look closely at what is around you. You will be enriched.

And although airlines and offices – institutions all – stick to schedules (more or less), most Mexicans move to their own rhythm.  You are in Mexico, so find your natural rhythm and move with it, too.

Las Posadas, rábanoes, y la nochebuena – it’s Christmas in Oaxaca

MINNESOTA September, 1995.

“Do you have a passport?” my wife asks me one evening.

“Yeah, but I think it has expired.  Why?

“Because Mom is taking all of us to Oaxaca for Christmas!”

Four months later, nine of us: my mother-in-law, sister-in-law and her family, my wife, our two grade school daughters, and I settle into our rooms at the Posada de Chencho.  Ollas, ceramics, and masks made by local artisans decorate the halls.  We lived within a long, narrow courtyard among poinsettia, bougainvillea, hibiscus, and bird of paradise plants.  This is the first of six Christmases we spend in Oaxaca, and they forever change our idea of this day.

‘Chencho,’ the posada’s Zapotec owner, a friend of my mother-in-law, knows everything about Oaxaca’s museums, shops, and festivals.  After a day in the city, we are overwhelmed by the its colonial center, the Zocalo, its vibrant colors, and rich scents.

It is December 21st but we feel a difference immediately.  Gone is the urgency over buying and baking for ‘The Day.’  The shops and markets are free of saccharine carols about tiny drums and partridges in pear trees.  It isn’t that Oaxacans don’t celebrate Christmas, it’s that they haven’t lost sight of its religious meaning.  The season begins December 16th with las posadas and lasts through January 6th, with gift-giving following the tradition of the Three Kings who brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh to Jesus.

La Posada en Teotitlan

Freed from the ‘commercial’ burden of Christmas, we are at liberty to explore other options.  Chencho tells us there will be a posada that evening in the nearby Zapotec town of Teotitlan.  We go.

La posadas are an ancient Spanish tradition brought to Mexico.  Neighbors take the part of pilgrims – the Holy Family – and process through the streets to a particular house. They chant songs back and forth with the householder who acts as the innkeeper. Eventually the peregrinos are admitted and there is a party with food and drink.  Like Day of the Dead, and the Virgin of Guadalupe, the missionaries used las posadas to supplant an indigenous celebration of the winter solstice and (possibly) the birth of Huitzilopochitli, the Aztec god of war.

The posada in Teotitlan is already underway when we join it, moving slowly along the dark streets, led by children with candles.  Teotitlan is built on a hillside, its cobbled streets wind and dip, so we walk carefully to avoid loose stones and potholes.  The brass band ahead of us plays marching songs, and two men carry a platform with statues of Mary and Joseph in 16th century Spanish garb.  Bottle rockets flare upward and explode overhead with a flash.  Boys on bicycles pause for the procession, make signs of the cross and pedal away.  Somewhere ahead, but out of sight, the children with candles seek the house where la posada will end.

We leave before they reach the house but I’m aware of another part of the Christmas story: the poverty of Mary and Joseph, their perilous search for shelter, rejection by the comfortable, giving birth in a barn instead of an inn.  Its a mixture of wonder and misery could be a Mexican story.

La Noche de los Rábanoes

“Tonight we will see la noche de los rábanoes,” my mother-in-law tells us.  The Zocalo is set aside each December 23rd for the ‘La noche de los rábanoes’, a tradition since 1897, a huge cultural event.

With some skepticism, I wonder what is special about radishes; they’re small and I rarely eat them.  On this night there is a competitive display of figures and scenes carved from huge, specially-grown radishes.  That morning in the Zocalo, I watch men, women, and children carving and assembling the figures in their scenes.  Their paring knives flick and slice.  Pieces of radish become arms and legs, heads and torsos.  The red skin is scored and cut to create mouths, eyes, or designs on clothing.  Later that day, we’re among the thousands that patiently wait our turn to see the tableaux of the birth of Jesus, Santiago defeating the Moors, the Virgin of Guadalupe, the Battle of Cinco de Mayo, and the Death of Zapata among others.  The winner is announced, but the prizes aren’t as great as the skill and dedication.

La nochebuena or Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve day is a Sunday, and we spend at the weekly tianguis in Tlacolula, one of the oldest continuous markets in Mesoamerica.  Here rural Mexicans in traditional dress buy and sell vegetables, kitchenware, jeans, shoes, tools, and necessities.  There are few tiendas or stalls selling items for tourists, and nothing indicates it is Christmas.  No special prices, no sales, no promotions, no pressure. (Heaven on earth!)

In Minnesota, we usually celebrate this evening (and my wife’s Norwegian heritage) with a meal of remembrance: meatballs in cream gravy, mashed potatoes, green peas, lefsa with butter and sugar, cranberries, and rice pudding.  Then we open gifts and go to church.  But tonight we eat a simple supper, or cena; Oaxacans have a civilization of three thousand years and a meal of remembrance isn’t needed.

We return to the Zocalo after dark.  Zapotec women in huipiles (indigenous dresses) offer to sell woven cloth and rebozos.  We buy some sparklers from a street vendor and join the throng of waiting spectators, but uncertain what we’re waiting for.  There is a murmur of expectant voices punctuated by the bottle rockets exploding overhead.

While we wait, we buy buñuelos at a stand.  They’re a flat, deep-fried pastry drenched in syrup and served in a simple clay bowl; a sweet, sticky Christmas tradition in Mexico.  Afterward, we join others in throwing the bowls over our shoulders – for luck.  It’s a tradition!

And then we hear a brass band playing off-key, and watch a long procession march toward the Zocalo.  Two women with a church banner, flanked by candle bearers, lead the way, followed by the band and marchers.  Behind them is a flat-bed truck with a girl dressed as Mary kneeling over a manger, and a boy as Joseph standing behind her.  More bands, processions, and floats approach from every corner of the city.  A man wears a bamboo frame with a wheel atop his head.  He lights the fireworks attached to the wheel, they set the wheel spinning as he runs around the square.

La nochebuena in Oaxaca is everything Christmas Eve is not in Minnesota: It’s a public celebration, a Mardi Gras, a college homecoming, and the July 4th all rolled into one, exuberant expression of joy.

“I like this better than a ‘Silent Night’ at home,” my wife says, thereby saying all that needs to be said.  How can one truly celebrate anything as great as the Messiah’s birth with only a pious hush?

Meanwhile, our eleven year-old daughter is talking to a Mexican girl in grade-school Spanish.  I can’t hear what they say, or understand it if I could.  They talk, putting their heads close together, and with shy smiles, exchange pieces of candy.  It’s Christmas.

La Navidad

Chencho throws a Christmas party for his guests but we are out-numbered by the members of his extended family.  First we have a cocktail party in the courtyard.  I ask for mescal, the fiery, local hooch made from maguey.  He serves it and points to a plate of salt containing the powdered remains of the maguey worm.  It’s an invitation and a dare.  I try it; the salty taste complements the liquor.

After cocktails, the children whack away at the piñata while blindfolded.  As the kids begin swinging, everyone yells directions and encouragement.  One by one, the clay piñatas are broken, candy spills onto the plaza, and squealing children scramble to get some.

After dinner, the courtyard falls quiet for naps and conversations about what we’ve seen and experienced.  Given the costs and hassles of holiday travel, we didn’t buy and bring Christmas gifts.  Traveling together is a gift in itself.  Since then, Christmases in Minnesota have never been the same.  We broke the habit of gift buying.  There’s no more suffering through frantic Black Fridays in search of ‘bargains.’  The day has largely reverted to a religious holiday of family and friends; a day of remembering Oaxaca.

Christmas is a theological idea expressed culturally.   Mexico, with its indigenous and Catholic traditions, keeps Christmas principally as a religious celebration.  But in the culturally diverse United States, the day is secularized into a common denominator.  It’s a pastiche of images from the Bible and folk tales, Mary and Joseph with Santa Claus and his elves; Dickens’ ‘Christmas Carol’ with the Gospel of Luke.  Christmas is wrapped in a peculiarly American sentimentality that overlooks the tribulations of Mary and Joseph; tribulations not dissimilar to the daily experience of many Mexicans.

Up next: Living on Mexican time.

Lying and the greater good



When is it all right to tell a lie?  And when isn’t it all right to tell a lie?  Hmmm (I’m scratching my head).  “That depends,” I might answer.  “Depends on what?” you ask.  “That’s just it,” I answer.  “It depends.”  Bill Clinton had this problem as well, depending on what the meaning of “is” is.

So let’s step back and do what any college sophomore would do: Redefine the question.  Is lying the same as not telling the truth?  And is lying a greater sin than not telling the truth?  Or are they equally abhorent?

As a language student in Mexico, I lived with a host family – Julian and Lupita – whom I liked a lot.  And when I returned to Puebla for another two weeks of immersion, I asked to live with them again.  That wasn’t possible and I was assigned to a different family.  Six months later, when I made plans for a third immersion, I was again assigned to Julian and Lupita.  And during that immersion, I spent Cinco de Mayo visiting with the woman who had been my landlady six months before.

As we were visiting and watching the parade on her television, she abruptly asked me: “Why didn’t you ask to live with me this time?”   Her question caught me by surprise.  My mind shifted into panic mode: How to answer her question.  I didn’t want to lie, because I dislike lying.  And I didn’t want to tell the truth because it would offend or wound her.  Telling the whole truth would answer her question but it wouldn’t result in any good or remedy.  So, I told some of the truth and left out other parts.

“I didn’t ask the Institute to assign me to anyone.  I let them assign me where they thought best.”  The answer satisfied her and we continued to visit and watch the parade.

My answer was technically true as far as it went.  But what I didn’t tell her, was that I wrote to Julian and Lupita months in advance because Lupita had told me she would ask the Institute to place me with her if she knew when I was returning.  The whole truth was that I didn’t enjoy living in the woman’s household as much as I enjoyed living with Julian and Lupita.  That was my personal preference but it was the kind of truth that causes pain without anything good.  All the same, I felt some guilt.

Was my story a lie?  Well, yes and no.  In a legalistic sense – were I under oath in court – my story was less than the whole truth and could be counted a half-truth, a “white” lie.  To a legalist, I told a lie.  I deceived the woman.  My defense is that I deceived her to spare her pain.  Which was the greater good?

Flat out lying, fabricating or prevaricating falsehoods for the purpose of deception is clearly wrong.  But telling less than the whole truth falls into moral ambiguity.  Was it better to tell the whole truth about why I preferred to live with Julian and Lupita even if it gave offense?  Or was it better to spare the woman the pain of rejection because my personal preference is what it is?

That’s the problem with life’s ambiguities; it’s usually a conflict between two or more of our positive values.  I value integrity and telling the truth.  But I also treasure compassion and try to avoid giving needless pain, physical or emotional.  There was nothing the woman could do to change the outcome of my choice; it was purely personal on my part.  So the whole truth – my preferences – would have impaired our friendship and not bettered her life.

Sorting out the greater good is the crux of it whether or not to withhold the truth.  Do the ends justify the means?  If we are about to tell a lie (or withhold the truth) perhaps the best test of the lie is to ask ourselves to whom are we lying, and why?  Are we lying to deceive another; or are we deceiving ourselves?  It’s been said that once we have learned to lie to ourselves, all other lies are easy.  Our lies may harm others, but we must recognized the fact that our soul is the first casualy of our lies.








The Virgin of Guadalupe – God’s feminine face

A hint of incense, with its sweet scent of mystery and sanctity, hung in the air of the semi-dark church.  Several hundred Mexican immigrants and a few Anglos filled the pews and more stood along the walls.  On a table beneath the rood beam, twinkling lights surrounded the statue of a woman  wearing a blue cloak with stars; her tranquil, brown face is turned aside, as if watching the boys at her feet, dressed in white ‘campesino‘ garb, and little girls with braids and long skirts, singing Spanish carols.  Happy parents watch, pleased they are passing their culture to the next generation.

It’s December 11, 10:30 p.m. and, to the sound of guitar music, the crucifer, the thurifer, the acolytes, the priest, and then the bishop walk up the center aisle to the sanctuary.  This is my church, El  Santo Nino Jesus, in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and as a new member, and this is my first experience with the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.  And it has changed my perspective.

If you’re not a Mexican, you may find the rest of this post exotic, but stick with me.  And if you are Mexican, I hope I don’t give offense if I get this wrong.  Believing in the Virgin of Guadalupe goes to the heart of cultural differences between Mexican and North American spirituality.  My friends in Mexico and Minnesota believe so strongly in her existence and power I can’t dismiss it as unreal.  Believing in Guadalupe is a part of who they are, and a part of our friends.  Something I accept even if I don’t  understand it completely.

Nothing is as Mexican as the Virgin of Guadalupe.  She is the unifying figure for Mexicans of all classes and ethnicities.  As Carlos Fuentes remarked: “You cannot truly be considered a Mexican unless you believe in the Virgin of Guadalupe.”  But who is she?  And what does it mean to believe in her?  And how do I understand her when I didn’t grow up under the Virgin’s guidance?

I grew up with the Virgin Mary as a figure from the Christmas Gospels, in Christmas pageants, carols, and creches. She seems so remote, so unnaturally pure as to be unreal.  I thought of her as the greatest of saints, the “Mother of God,” but abstractly as the name of a holy person along with Peter and Paul, Luke and Matthew.  Like them, she lived in a distant past and wasn’t a presence in the here and now.   That’s how I thought until I went to Mexico where she seems to be a fact of life.

So who is she?  What is my relationship to her – whoever she is?  Indisputable information about the Virgin of Guadalupe is hard to come by.  What there is, is subject to varied interpretations and disputes.  As the story goes, she appeared to an indigenous peasant named Juan Diego a decade after the Spanish conquista on the hilltop of Tepeyac, a place where the Aztecs had worshipped Tonanzintla, the mother of their gods.  The Virgin appeared with a brown face and spoke in Nahuatl, the indigenous tongue.  The Aztecs quickly embraced her and millions converted to Catholicism within a decade, despite the doubts of the bishop.  In time, the Church accepted the apparition as real and built a church on the site.  It is now the most visited shrine in Mexico.  December 12 is her feast day in the Mexican calendar.

I’ve never seen an apparition or met anyone who has, but I image it is intensely personal and makes a powerful impact on the person who has it.  But is it real?  Or is it a form of dreaming or hallucination or delusion?  For the millions who didn’t witness the apparition, the story of it rang true and they converted because of it.  A  woman, the Mother of God, like their Aztec mother of the gods, had appeared where they used to worship.  The effect was profound.

She was and remains a figure for all Mexicans.  When Padre Miguel Hidalgo raised the flag of Independence in 1810, he and his followers shouted: “Long live our Holy Mother the Virgin of Guadalupe, Death to bad government!”  Painting her image on their banners, the army of peasants and creoles fought and died by the thousands until Mexico achieved its independence in 1821.  Afterward, the victors gave thanks for Guadalupe’s intercessions as the source of their victory.  After a century of Independence, internal struggles, and dictatorship, Mexico erupted in Revolution.  The leaders had no consensus: Liberalism, monarchism, socialism, constitutionalism, and they led the country in different directions. Emiliano Zapata led his followers into battle under the banner of Guadalupe.  In 1995, the Zapatista Liberation Army of Chiapas named their ‘mobile city’ after Guadalupe. For a century, through good times and bad, the Virgin has been the unifying symbol, the rubber band, that binds together the disparate classes, ethnicities, political parties, and alliances that make up modern Mexico.   Unlike politicians, she is above criticism or doubt.

Everywhere I go in Mexico, Guadalupe looks upon me from posters, banners, and statues in store windows.  Men and women wear her medallions; she is silk-screened onto T-shirts, and painted onto walls.  Restaurants and businesses display posters or images of her.   Pedestrians pause at small shrines on the sidewalk to pray before going to work.  Like a truly protective mother, she is a silent presence watching over her ‘children’ in Mexico.  Guadalupe is syncretistic but there is substance as well.  The Biblical Mary was a decisive and powerful figure and not a passive vessel of popular piety.  Being pregnant out-of-wedlock in Judea would have brought about Mary’s death by stoning (had not Joseph agreed to marry her).  The “Magnificat” by itself is a  radical vision of social justice (as yet unrealized) that Jesus went on to proclaim as ‘good news.’  After giving birth, Mary  is a silent presence except at a wedding in Cana; a witness to the crucifixion and resurrection.

But all this is history and theology.  The facts are few and conjectural.  Whether Mary is a real figure in history, or whether Mary’s apparition as Guadalupe happened or not; the impact on Mexico and Mexicans is real and profound and can’t be ignored when learning to understand Mexican culture.

I was struck by Guadalupe’s power, if that’s what it is, on the day we installed her statue in the chapel at Santo Nino.  Someone donated the statue anonymously (anonymous donations are very Mexican).  Two women carried her statue forward and put it on a corner of the altar.  The priest blessed it with incense and holy water.  And, as the soloist sing “Ave Maria,” the women carried the statue to its place in the chapel.  I stood with my friends during the installation, seeing solemn, brown faces – men’s and women’s – wet with tears.  Their connection was deep, personal, and emotional; and I knew it was something outside my ability to experience.

Every Sunday, Angeles or other women from Santo Nino place fresh flowers before Guadalupe’s statue.  They place the flowers carefully, tenderly, and then stand back, offering prayers.  Looking on, I see their devotions are intimately personal, the silent or whispered conversations from their hearts between the women and Guadalupe.

Why do modern people – Mexicans or North Americans – believe in an apparition that happened nearly 500 years ago, if it happened at all?  Why do they believe in an apparition in which Mary returns as an indigenous woman?  Almost any other appearance would be treated like believing in UFO abdunctions, Big Foot sightings, or extra terrestrial origins of the pyramids.  Where’s the proof?

Those questions lead me to wonder about some sacred North American beliefs.  Why do we believe the “invisible hand” of the free market brings about the greatest good for the greatest number when the evidence is contrary?  And why do we still pay lip service if not outright devotion to the idea that “heaven” has a special mission, a “manifest destiny,” for the United States in world affairs not given to any other nation?  Why do we believe that?  It takes a large dose of hubris to believe in manifest destiny or American exceptionalism, and a certain moral blindness to believe in the goodness of the free market despite economic facts.  The free market and manifest destiny are abstract ideas but we accept them.  It’s even easier to believe in Guadalupe.

The Virgin of Guadalupe is a real and powerful force in Mexican life.  Millions ask her to pray with them and for them; they seek her blessing, protection, and guidance in all manner of causes and situations.  When their prayers are answered (and I believe some prayers are answered), or they receive a miracle, they gratefully undertake works of mercy, compassion, and charity.   I can’t think of many individuals (real or imaginary) who have inspired and commanded such devotion over so long a time.

Guadalupe wasn’t part of my spiritual formation in Minnesota.  I didn’t grow up with her watching over me from a wall in my home, in my church, or from a street corner shrine.  She didn’t exist in my world until middle-age and I find it impossible to make an emotional connection to her the way that “Amazing Grace” or other hymns give me a clutch in my throat.  Guadalupe for my friends and “Amazing Grace” for me have been indelible parts of our respective spiritual lives.  Memory is a part of our identity.

“What does the Virgin of Guadalupe mean to you?” I asked my friend, Maria, a woman of forty, a mother, and bookkeeper.

“She’s my spiritual mother,” Maria said.  “She’s the feminine face of God.”

Yes, now I understand.  Jesus taught that when we feed and clothe the poor, or heal the sick, or visit the prisoners, we are doing these things to him as well.   And from that, we are taught to seek the face of Jesus in the people around us or to be his face to others.  Seeing Guadalupe as the feminine face of God makes sense.

Tonight we will celebrate the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.  I’ll be there as the music swells, the priest and bishop elevate the bread and wine in the Eucharist.  I’ll be in line with the others, filing forward  to receive the Body and Blood of Christ.  And then I’ll pause before the Virgin’s statue to say a prayer.  After the communion, the Aztec dancers will file in, their feathered headdresses waving, the shells tied to their ankles rattling softly.  While the drummers pound a hypnotic rhythm, the dancers will sway and dip before the statue, their bare feet flashing and the shells rattling.

And after the dancers, the mariachi, six men in tight pants and short jackets adorned with silver conchos and buttons.  They will stand before the statue with guitars, violin, and trumpets to play and sing “Las Mananitas,” a traditional song for birthdays.  We will stand and sing with them as the last of the incense drifts over us and the music fills us with the joy of celebrating the day of our spiritual mother, the Virgin of Guadalupe, the feminine face of God.

Next post: La Navidad in Oaxaca – las posadas, calendas, and fireworks

I didn’t think I’d like it

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “Recently Acquired.”

A professional colleague urged me to write an “author’s blog” if I want to get published.  “You need this as part of your ‘platform.'”  This wasn’t what I wanted to hear a few days before heading to Mexico.  I will be busy teaching English in a pueblo.

Grumbling to myself (because my colleague is right and I respect her), I created a blog (‘Adventures in Midlife Spanish’), published a short post, packed my Android tablet, and set out.  Once in Mexico, the blog didn’t feel like a chore, something that had to be done.  I liked writing in Mexico. Blogging offered something more interesting and creative than a journal – which I usually keep in Mexico.  A journal is something I write for myself but the blog I write for the world (or those who take the time of find and read it).  This changed the tenor of my time in Mexico.

The subjects and material lay around me in profusion: Chance encounters with students, winding, cobbled streets in colonial neighborhoods, celebrating Dia de los Muertos with my host family, an evening’s conversation with a Tutunaku poet on the preservation of indigenous languages, and the protests over the 43 missing students followed by the revelation of a luxurious house for the President’s wife built by questionable means.  Every day the world presented things I might never cover in a journal.  Living once more in a country steeped in traditions and indigenous cultures yet wracked with political, social and economic turmoil, I felt like a foreign correspondent, a journalist, a fly on the wall, an observer writing in ‘real time.’  I was asking different questions.  Instead of asking what was interesting to only to me, I focused on things others might find illuminating, or interesting.  Blogging is liberating if not addictive.  That’s a surprise.

Home Sweet Homestay – living and loving the language


OAXACA, Mexico

Many Spanish immersion programs offer a “homestay.” It’s a real-world setting for using and learning language.  Is that something a middle-aged adult really needs to do?  I mean, after college, aren’t we too old be living with strangers? Isn’t that going to cramp our adult freedom?  Wouldn’t it be better to rent an apartment, maybe with a friend or spouse?

If your answer is “Yes,” please keep reading and consider my experience.

Hosts are more than you imagine them to be …

Getting off the Estrella Roja coach in Puebla for my first immersion, I know little except I will live with a family named Gutierrez. Of course, I speculated about what they would be like.  By the time I reach Puebla, I have a clear, imaginary picture of them.  But Julian and Lupita Gutierrez are not as I imagined.

My first impression is I’m having a homestay in a nursing home.  Julian is at least 80 and Lupita is in her mid-sixties.  He has a shock of white hair; hers is still naturally dark, with long eyelashes to match.  Julian and Lupita are nothing like the multi-generational family I imaged.  I’m afraid we won’t have much in common. But I’m wrong!

Their house is small by U.S. standards, but comfortable; their bookshelves are jammed with titles covering a range of interests; and souvenir plates from their travels cover the dining room wall.  My room is more than I expected: a double bed, desk, dresser, and built in closet as well as a private bathroom.  It’s everything I need.

I rise early the first morning, a Sunday. Julian steps out of the kitchen to offer me a mug of fresh coffee flavored with cinnamon.  “From now on, we speak only Spanish,” he tells me in English.  It’s one of the Institute’s rules.   I’m okay with that.  I came to learn.  And then he asks if I want to attend early Mass with them.  I say “yes” because I’m committed to saying “yes” every language and cultural opportunity.  And after Mass he invites me to go to with him to a friend’s ranchito for a party.  Again I say “yes.”

Hebert and Socorro host the party and don’t speak English. Neither do any of the other 25 or 30 guests. Julian introduces me to people whose names I immediately forget. Then he settles me into a conversation with Hebert’s son, an attorney.  Seeing that I’m “dog-paddling” in a conversation, he leaves me alone.  At first I feel anxious; later see it was shrewd on his part.

Over bottles of Corona beer, I chat as best I can with the young attorney.  Although I went to Mexico with some vocabulary and basic grammar, I couldn’t mold it into a real sentence.  But the attorney is patient and kind; he nods and encourages me. Slowly, thanks to his affirmation, I gain enough confidence to push my boundaries in Spanish.  By day’s end, I’m exhausted but elated. I’ve been in conversations for nearly seven hours!

I suppose our proximity in ages and life experiences started my rapport with them.  We are, at most fifteen years apart in age and we’ve already lived a lot of the ups and downs that life dishes out.  In less than two days, we act as if we’ve known each other a long time.   I feel settled, without the uncertainty of being with strangers.

Homestay is more than room and board …

They give me more than room and board. Lupita corrects my words and makes it her mission to improve my accent.  “Say fácil,” she says at breakfast.  It’s more like an order than a request.  Fácil means “easy” and is accented: FÁH-sil.

I try to copy her accent but it comes out “fa-SIL,” and “fassil” and “FUH-sal.”

“No.  FÁH-sil.”

And so it goes, back and forth for a week until I get it; until fácil is fácil.  While Lupita works on my diction, Julian guides me through some of the cultural norms.  

Buen provecho! he says as I sit down the dinner.  It means roughly the same as bon appetit.  “We say that at every meal,” he explains, “and we say it to strangers in a restaurant.  It’s impolite to ignore those who are eating.”  This is a revelation!  In Minnesota, we give people their space and this would be an intrusion. But in the more extroverted culture of Mexico, it is rude to ignore people.  This is only the beginning of lessons in language and culture.

Very gently and casually, they take me under their wing and teach me without appearing to teach me at all.  Like a child, I learn by imitating what they do.  Its’ easy. And they do this when I lived with them during four of the five immersions.

A network of lasting friends is possible …

Eduardo and Lorena live next door to Julian and sometimes board students.  He is a businessman, she volunteers at a nursing home, and their children are grown.  Eduardo and I are the same age and on Sunday afternoon, during an outing, he and I climb through cactus and mesquite to the top of a butte. Our friendship grows out of that adventure.  On my next visit, they take me to the indigenous town of Cauhuatinchan to explore an ex-convento dating from the 1500s.  A couple years later, after immersion, when I work voluntarily in Puebla, he invites my wife and me to stay with them instead of a hotel.

Hebert is a doctor, an anesthetist, about my age.  He and Socorro live in the city but own the ranchito in the country.  They are a couple of expansive generosity and we become friends almost instantly.  One year, I spend the Cinco de Mayo holiday with them, sitting in their arbor and talking for seven hours! At other times, I visit the ranchito, or they take me to their social events.

Besides friends who are contemporaries, my network includes former teachers with whom I correspond regularly, conversation guides, and some of their family and friends who make up my social circle in Puebla. A homestay is an efficient way to build a network of friends.  Once I acquired a network of friends, the city no longer seemed foreign but familiar. I no longer felt like a visitor, but a resident.  That’s how I feel in Puebla; like I belong there.  An emotional connection to people anchors me to the city.

Home Sweet Homestay 

A homestay adds a special dimension learning and living in Mexico. It’s a privilege to be an integral part of a family.  This is one of the joys of Spanish immersion.  And although I’m no longer a student, I seek out homestays instead of an apartment when I volunteer in Mexico.

Now I am living with Estela and Daniel in a Oaxacan family.  They are in their sixties, people of humble origins and means and not quite middle-class, although their grown children are.  I have my own room, the appointments are simple; the food is excellent and abundant.  So are laughter, conversation, and love among all members of the family – including me.

I have always learned more about how to talk and act from living with families than from classrooms.   Like a child at the dinner table, I’m still learning the language as it’s really spoken from people who use it daily.

Learning the language and learning to talk are different things.  I can learn the language as a body of knowledge yet be unable to really speak it.  But living in a family, I hear hijole! for “wow!”, orale for affirmation like “okay,” and esta en la onda for “to be with it.”  Something that is produced or grown around Oaxaca is criollo, and if you appreciate something, the phrase is, te pasas.   If you’re frustrated, you might say, no manchas.  A fool is called  a pendejo, or guage, and a small boy is a chamaco.   You won’t find these in regular dictionaries or, if you do, you won’t know how to use them, and when.

After seven years, I’ve come to regard Julian and Lupita as my Mexican padrino and madrina, or god-parents.  What began as a passing acquaintance has become familial love.  Their friends and neighbors are my part of my extended family, and I’m a part of theirs.  To be loved in your family is a divine gift; to be loved in another country, another culture, in another family, is an even greater gift.

Not getting your money’s worth … 

So, if you’re still thinking about an apartment, you may have more privacy and liberty to go as you please but at a price.  You’ll have fewer opportunities to learn day-to-day Spanish from native speakers.  And if you are living with a spouse or friend, you are less likely to speak to each other in Spanish.

If you skip the homestay and opt for an apartment, you have just cut your immersion experience by half. Said another way, you’re not getting your money’s worth because you’re getting only half the education you’re paying for.

So, weighing the two options, which is the better deal?

For me, there’s no place like homestay.




Spanish – getting it WRITE

OAXACA, Mexico

At the end of my first day of my first immersion at the Spanish Institute of Puebla, Claudia assigned “tarea” or homework: Write ten sentences in the “co-preterito” or past imperfect.  You know, the sentences that say “I used to do this,” or “I was doing this.”

Ten sentences in the imperfect!  That’s all?  Ten random sentences in the past perfect?  I can do that in twenty minutes! That’s not much of an assignment.  I expect something more for my fee!  So I set to make it something more and found a strategy that worked well for me – then and now.

The imperfect is ideal for narratives and description.  That evening, I hit on telling a story I might relate in a conversation.  Sitting at my small desk, I thought about a story of ten or a dozen lines.  It wasn’t anything serious, just an episode with a beginning, middle and end.   Then I picked the verbs I wanted for the imperfect and wrote them across the top of the page.

Then a decision:  Write the story in English and then translate or rewrite it in Spanish?  Or just plunge into Spanish and start writing?   Writing in English struck me as half-hearted – almost cheating – and self-defeating.  Writing in Spanish meant thinking in Spanish, and wasn’t that the point of immersion – to learn to think and speak in Spanish?

After two hours and a couple false starts, I finished a one-page story I was proud to hand in the next day.  Besides the ten sentences in the imperfect, the narrative needed a few in the present and future tenses.  I gave it to Claudia, she put on her glasses, and read it.   She said nothing, but looked at me with a question in her eyes, as if awaiting an explanation.

In halting Spanish, I said writing a story seemed like the best way to practice the imperfect in a context.  This seemed to me a good way to create a coherent relationship among the sentences was to write them the way I   would say them in a conversation.  This way I can get used to handling several verbs in shaping a story.

She smiled and nodded.  “Si,” she agreed.  Thereafter, I wrote essays, short stories, and opinion pieces every day during each of the five immersions.  As my Spanish improved over time, I  wrote longer stories, developed characters and plots, and gave them richer details and greater nuance.  My writings ranged over simple narratives, humor, short fiction, and political editorials.

The point of writing

But, you say, I don’t like to write.  All I want to do is learn to speak the language, not write it.  I understand.  Many of us find writing a chore, and sometimes it is.  None the less, we all know how to write – however poorly we do it.  Writing is a part of language; our capacity to write is integrally linked to our capacity to think, to feel, and to speak.   All of these functions work together in to create language.  Writing – however poorly done – can improve our fluency.

Don’t think you have to come up with the “Great Mexican Novel.”  Let’s be pragmatic.

Writing makes visible our speech, our thoughts or the fruits of our thought.  When we write, we can see our thoughts, we can save them, refine them, correct them, and return to them again and again.  If nothing else, our writing becomes a personal artifact of intellectual archaeology.  And as an artifact, your essay, opinion piece, letter, or short story in Spanish provides you and your teacher with a map of how our mind works with the language.  Don’t fret about the sophistication of what your write.  It’s not the story you tell that’s so important, it’s HOW you tell it.    

Writing saves our thoughts in a moment of time, a reference point in our development as Spanish speakers.  Why?  From essay to essay, our writings create benchmarks for measuring our progress toward fluency.  With our teacher, we can identify the chronic weak spots in our grammar, syntax, or conjugation (and we all have weak spots).  After a few essays, we can identify patterns: habitual errors, missed accents, failure to use the subjunctive in subordinate clauses, misplaced direct and indirect object pronouns, and more.  All of this information helps to set our priorities for improvement.  Through triage, if nothing else, we can tackle one problem at a time.  And a periodic comparison of essays will reveal the progress we are truly making. 

The method

Writing takes a little planning.  And planning makes our task easier.  Ah!  The question: What am I going to write about?

Pick something simple; maybe something simple you know how to do and describe that to an imaginary Spanish speaker.  Or write about an episode from childhood, or about your dog.  It doesn’t matter what the topic is as long as it’s something you like.  The more you like the topic, the easier it is to write about it.  But keep it simple so your mental energy goes into the language rather than the theme.

Think about how this story relates to and will be useful in working through the problem you have with a category of conjugation, a grammatical tense, or vocabulary.  It may be verbs in the conditional, indirect object pronouns, or “modismos” or colloquialisms.

Don’t try to cram two or three problem areas into one essay.  Use triage.  One problem area per essay.  As you review your work,

If you’re not a writer by nature, you may still feel stumped for a theme.  If you are, play this little game.  Select words from the category you are working with (let’s say it’s verbs) and write them across the top of the page.  Okay: Now you have verbs but they are unrelated.   Your task is to create a story line that puts these verbs into a logical relationship.  Think of them like the magnetic words on the refriderator door – words you can re-arrange to make different sentences.

Dollars to donuts, with a smidgen of imagination, the verbs will “suggest” the story line to you.  Words have friends, and as soon as you put down one word, that word invites another, and very soon they invite more words and you have a sentence.  Once that happens, the rest is easy.  Or easier.  The juxtaposition of verbs suggested possibilities I wouldn’t have thought of on my own.

Try this

No matter where you are in your pusuit of Spanish, try writing as a way to confront problems with grammar and syntax.  Take an aspect of vocabulary or grammar that is particularly difficult and make an assignment.  Think of a story or a dialogue between characters that will cause you to use the part of the language that is most difficult in the moment.  Put the key words at the top of the page and start writing.

Like physical exercise, the effort will strengthen and expand your capacity to use the tenses (say, the subjunctive), the indirect object pronouns, etc. with ease.  I’ve read that this kind of effort creates new neural pathways.  Maybe so.  I do know, however, the effort smooths out rough places in my Spanish.  Who knows, you may enjoy it!






“Ya basta!” – Celebrating an unfinished revolution

OAXACA, Mexico

Understanding social realities is an important part of learning Spanish and Mexican culture.  Unlike a packaged tour, immersion means you take what comes, the good, the bad, and reality  Today is the 104th anniversary of the Mexican Revolution.  Although it began as a Revolution, it soon descended into civil war lasting nearly ten years.  Its grim tally of untold deaths is often overlooked in favor of colorful characters like Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata.  Let’s start the day’s meditaton with the colorful leaders and look at the realities later.

That was then … or was it?

My friend Don Hilario, a former mariachi, took me to several places in the life of an iconic Revolucionario: Emiliano Zapata, the handsome general with a thick moustache, large sombrero, his chest crossed by bandeliers of bullets.  Don Hilario’s adult children and grandchildren – my friends – live in Minnesota.  He lives in Cuautla, Morelos, in a small house built against the stone and concrete wall of the ex-Hacienda Coahuixtla.

On my first visit in 2010, he put on his hat, picked up his cane, and led me into the ex-Hacienda.  It is a ruin, an empty shell of crumbling, stone buildings were landless peasants processed cane into sugar and died in dire poverty.  The Revolution smashed the hacienda system, including this one.  As we stood on a knoll, he pointed across the valley and said: “Over there is Zapata’s house.  Do you want to see it?”  Of course I did!

It’s the centerpiece at the Zapata Museum in the town of Anenecuilco (which he made me practice pronouncing).  The remnants of its adobe walls are protected from the weather by a huge nylon cover.  The immense mural presents the life of Emiliano Zapata in dramatic scenes and vivid color.  Zapta is the Revolution’s romantic icon.

When I visited him again in 2012, Don Hilario drove me to his home town, Quilamula, a pueblo in southwestern Morelos.  On the way, we stopped at ex-Hacienda Chinameca where a young teamster named Emiliano Zapata hauled the bricks to construct the hacienda.   In 1919, near the end of the civil war, Zapata’s rivals assassinated him there.   Quilamula is a poor town, and it was easy to imagine that many towns like it offered men as “guerreros” who followed Zapata for “Tierra y libertad,” land and liberty.

That night, in my guest room on the second level of Don Hilario’s small house, I stood on the balcony under a full moon.  Looking over the tops of the pomelo trees at moonlight and shadow, I was deeply aware I was as close as I could come to the Revolution of 1910.

This is now … or is it still 1910?

This morning I paused by the plaza of a kindergarten and peered through the wrought iron gate at the parents and children celebrating the Revolution.  Little boys wore small serapes, conical sombreros, and carried toy rifles; the girls wore long skirts with ribbons in their braids.  A fiesta for los “ninos.”

But an adult hung on the gate a framed, hand-lettered sign listing the causes of the Revolution:

  • Unequal distribution of wealth;
  • Exploitation of workers;
  • Political and adminstrative corruption;
  • Negation of democratic government.

Many Mexicans today wonder what has changed.  Is this 1910 over again?

Since the Spanish conquista, resources and wealth in Mexico have been largely in the hands of a small circle of influentials: Spaniards, then the criollos who succeeded them, and then the one-party government of the PRI (Partido Revolutionario Institutional) that ran Mexico from 1929 until 2000.

Expropriation of ancestral lands provided the spark for Zapata’s bottom-up revolt in the State of Morelos.  But Zapta’s was only one of several revolutions that erupted in different places in opposition to the 30-year presidency of  Porfirio Diaz.  Briefly united, the revolutionaries forced Diaz into exile.  After that, the country plunged into a decade of brutal conflict as generals and chiefs allied and betrayed each other in pursuit of conflicting agendas for the future of Mexico.

Unfortunately, ten years of civil war didn’t resolve these contradictions and establish a common vision that all Mexicans could embrace.  Nor did it create a democracy to off-set if not end the pre-Revolution system of oligarcy that had marginalized the campesinos and indigenous.  Only the names of the oligarchs changed.  The tendency toward oligarchy re-emerged within the state managed-economy run by the PRI.  Before its 71 year domination ended, the PRI co-opted and absorbed civic organizations, labor unions, trade associations, and cooperatives that might otherwise act as independent, countervailing forces.

Ayotzinapa – a flash back

The September 26, 2014, massacre of 43 student teachers at the hands of officials in Iguala, Guerrero, shocked a country already numbed by tens of thousands of deaths in a decade of the narco-violence.  Murders in Iguala resurrected memories of 1968 when he government used the Army to crush a student protest at the Autonomous University in Mexico City.  Like Kent State in 1970, the massacre at Tlatelolco left deep wounds.

The mayor of Iguala ordered the arrests of students because he feared they would disrupt an event held by his wife.  After the arrests, the police turned the students over to Guerreros Unidos, a drug gang, that killed them and burned their bodies.  Iguala exposed and confirmed the collaboration between drug cartels and local government.   Although the mayor of Iguala is in jail, and the Governor of Guerrero has resigned, the search for bodies goes on, and people wonder what other officials are controled by drug cartels.

Public anger is palpable, as is the disgust over corruption.  Daily press accounts reveal conflicts of interest and corruption among governors and other officials in cities and states throughout the country.  The President’s luxurious new home for his wife, however it is finally paid for, is more gas on the fire for citizens who don’t live in luxury.

Discontent and anger are evident in every place I’ve traveled -Mexico City, Puebla, Oaxaca, Tlaxiaco, and other pueblos.  Oaxaca’s Zocalo is a protesters’ camp of banners, tents and tarps.  Protesters march in Puebla and Mexico.  Banners hang in front of municipal halls and government buildings; graffiti and posters avow solidarity with the 43.  Youths slow traffic at toll booths outside Oaxaca to give travelers information and seek donations for families of the 43 dead students.

“Ya basta!” Enough already, is the prevailing mood.  Protesters are calling on the President to step down.

As I write this, officials in Mexico City have canceled the traditional celebrations in the Zocalo because of massive protests that are occuring.  Police and marchers are clashing near the International Airport.  In Puebla, students are marching in solidarity with the 43 murdered students.  Protests are occuring elsewhere.

After you make friends in Mexico, it becomes increasingly difficult to shrug your shoulders and feel nothing for the social and political forces affecting them.  Friendships can make these events personal.  What affects my friends, affects me, even if I can’t do anything about it.  For my many friends in Mexico, I hope for the best – whatever that may be.   

After a decade of narco-violence and political corruption, will the Mexican people rise up in revolt?  No one can say for certain.  The Revolution remains unfinished, its promises unfulfilled.  The grievances of 1910 are with us yet.  Are there grievances enough to spark a national uprising?  No one knows for certain, but there is something in the wind.  And if there is an uprising, will it have a unifying vision for Mexico?  No one knows.

Like the volcano Popocatepetl, the body politic has errupted periodically since 1910, the outrage arising over one greivance or another, and then subsiding.  But like El Popo, the causes of unrest remain and the social magma is moving once more beneath the surface.  The phrase: “Ya basta!” has real force.  Mexico, like El Popo, is never dormant and the risk of eruption remains.  “Ya basta!”