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Archive for the 'Memoirs from Xalapa Mexico' Category

Emmersed in Xalapa – Life in Mexico

Life in Mexico

Kris Morris, that’s me, is a perpetual student, traveler, and writer. After living in Oaxaca and Guanajuato, I made Xalapa, Veracruz my home. Surrounded by cloud forests, lush vegetation and intermittent drizzle, I find Xalapa a perfect place to search out the fantastic in the details of daily life.

I began studying Spanish in high school. However, it wasn’t until I began traveling to Mexico and Central America that I fell head-over-heels in love with all things having to do with the language and cultures of Latin America.

After numerous journeys south of the border, I finally packed up my bags for good. I landed in Xalapa, the capital of the state of Veracruz. It’s a cool, collected city known for its drizzle, or chipi chipi. It’s surrounded by cloud forests and overgrown with vegetation. Here I met my husband and started our bicultural family.

It’s not always easy living in another country. Every day is an adventure. While it can be trying, it is the absolute best way to learn another language. I invite you all to join me on my journey through Xalapa and the Spanish language.

Click here to learn more about the Spanish language and the Mexican culture!

Hey Tú (You)! – How to use ‘tú’ in Spanish

Hey Tú (You)! - How to use 'tú' in Mexican Spanish

When I first began living here in Xalapa, Mexico, I strolled over to the nearest verdulería (a fruit and vegetable store) to buy some mangos. I remember seeing only vegetables and asking the shopkeeper, “¿No tienes mangos?” (You don’t have mangos?) He replied, “No seño, pero pasa usted mañana y habrá más fruta.” (“No ma’am, but come by tomorrow, and there´ll be more fruit.”)

That’s when I realized that I’d made an embarrassing mistake. I should have said, “Usted no tiene mangos?” [You (formal) don’t have mangos?] There was no going back now. I’d lost my grammatical footing and was unsure of how to save face. Once the mistake was made, once I used , it would be awkward to suddenly switch to usted (formal – you). That could be interpreted as putting up a barrier after I had used the friendly . My escape tactic? I started using ustedes (formal – you, plural), referring to him and his wife, until I was sure he had forgotten the incident.

You see, the usage of and usted is a very complex and very cultural part of Spanish grammar. If this young man’s wife, or for that matter my husband, had overheard me refer to the shopkeeper as , I would have found myself in an uncomfortable situation.
One of the many ways in which we can use and usted is to define one’s intentions when speaking with the opposite sex. When I speak with men who are merely acquaintances, e.g. waiters, shopkeepers, delivery boys, etc., I always use usted. Most respectable men do the same. This rule, of course, varies from country to country and region to region. Here in Mexico, it would be wise to use usted more often than not. It sets limits and helps avoid potentially aggravating situations.

Many other factors go into play when deciding whether to use or usted. It may be used as a sign of respect for a person’s profession, age or social stance. It may be used to create a barrier, to distance one’s self from another person or, likewise, to draw in a person, to break down barriers. It takes experience and practice to master and usted. There will be plenty more discussion on the topic in upcoming posts.


  • – You (Informal)
  • Usted – You – singular (Formal)
  • Verdulería – A fruit and vegetable store
  • Tener – To have
  • Seño – Ms. It is used when one is not sure if señorita or señora is appropriate.

Want to learn even more about Mexico?
Check out our Culture File: Mexico series!

The Importance of Greetings in Mexican Spanish

The Importance of Greetings in Mexican Spanish

The other day I rented the movie The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. There is a scene in which Tommy Lee Jones’s character enters into a tienda, goes directly to the fridge, takes out his beverage, sets it on the counter to pay and says something like, “¿Cuánto cuesta?” That’s when you realize that he is still hasn’t mastered the subtlties and nuances of Mexico.

This character supposedly knows Mexican culture inside and out. It’s just one, small detail that shows you that he doesn’t. When a Mexican walks into a store, he or she almost always greets the employees. That may not be the case in Mexico City or maybe not even in Guadalajara or Monterrey. It is the case in smaller cities and pueblos. It is most certainly the case here in Xalapa.

When you walk into a store, a doctor’s office or a restaurant, you say, buenos días, buenas tardes or buenas noches, depending on the time of day. If you, like me, wander through the day a little unsure of when morning turns to afternoon, a simple buen día will suffice. When you leave you say gracias and maybe even something like hasta luego, even if you’re pretty sure you’ll never see this person again.

Greetings go a long way in helping you to blend in and to come across as a traveler rather than a tourist. Imagine how it looks to the Mexican shopkeeper when ten locals have wandered into his store, all saying buenos días, gracias and hasta luego. Then in walks an American, silent and looking only at his objective: potato chips. He grabs his bag of chips and hands them to the store keeper. He’s told how much they cost, pays, grabs his chips and walks out. That is what gives tourists a bad name.

It pays to master the niceties before visiting a foreign country. This is especially true for Mexico. Look around, listen, and see what the locals do. Even if your Spanish is minimal, a little courtesy can go a long way.

So check out these Mexican Spanish greetings:


  • Buenos días – Good morning
  • Buenas tardes – Good afternoon
  • Buenas noches – Good evening / Good night
  • Buen día – Good day
  • Buen provecho – Bon appetit
  • Gracias – Thank you
  • Hasta luego – See you later
  • Tienda – Store
  • ¿Cuánto cuesta? – How much does it cost?

Want to learn how to greet someone in Mexican Spanish?
Check out this FREE lesson: 3-Minute Mexican Spanish – Greetings

Happy Holidays and Happy New Year From!

Happy Holidays and Happy New Year from everyone here at! We’re grateful to have listeners just like you, and we’re eagerly waiting for the upcoming year to learn Spanish together!

And when the New Year comes around, be sure to make a resolution to study Spanish with!

Have a healthy and happy holiday season.

From the Team!

A Look at the Maya

I came across a great “documental” (documentary) called Develop: Mayan Territory ( It takes you on a journey through areas populated by the Maya in Mexico, Belize and Guatemala. You get a look at two sides of these communities, the poverty as well as the ingenuity, creativity and communal spirit that unites them.

An underlying theme in the documentary is that of using what is on hand, what you already have around you, to better your surroundings. It is not necessary to look “más allá” (beyond) that. However, by combining forces with people from all over the world, we have the ability to create a closer-knit global community that works for common solutions.

The film is about “el poder de la ideas” (the power of ideas) and the will to make them reality. It provides foreigners with a humble and respectful look at what it means to be Maya and what is possible to accomplish. It is a much needed documentary. “La probreza” (poverty) and “la corrupción” (corruption) often seem to run so deep that it’s hard to believe that there are “soluciones” (solutions). This is especially true if you see it (todos los días” (every day). It’s easy to fall into apathy. This documentary is a reminder that something can be done.

This is especially important for those of you interested in the language and culture of Latin America.

Practical Concerns

My son has been terribly sick… again. So I decided to take this opportunity to talk about practical health concerns in Mexico.

Americans are known for being very, shall we say, particular about what we eat, where we sleep and the risks we are willing to take. In the School for Foreign Students here in Xalapa, Americans are often a cause for frustration. Sometimes they refuse to put the toilet paper in the wastebasket instead of the toilet. Sometimes they demand immediate medical attention for bug bites. For Mexicans, this is understandably exasperating as these are all things that are part of daily life down here. For Americans, it just takes someone who knows the ropes to get them out of the beginner’s crisis.

I love to do exactly what a foreigner should never do: eat tacos at street stands. They are delicious and authentic, yet they’ve also given me Typhoid Fever. And as far as the water goes, I brush my teeth with it and cook pasta in it and haven’t had a problem. I know people, though, who have gotten really sick just by rinsing their mouths out with tap water. It just depends on the individual.

The other day I decided to buy chicken breast. It seems to be a simple enough operation. There are several people near our home who sell it. At one woman’s stall, I’ve seen the chicken laid out on the sidewalk next to bird poop and chewed gum. I kept on walking. At the next stall, a young couple sat beneath a beach umbrella and kept the chicken covered by a clean cloth. One person handled the money and the other person handled the food. It would have been an ideal place but they were already sold out. So I went to the last stand. Here was a man swatting wasps from his chicken parts. I’ve seen a lot of people buy from him so I imagined he was a safe option.

I started to doubt my decision when I saw how he handled money, his cell phone, ran his hands through his hair and then handled the chicken. I thought maybe I was just being a picky American. So I bought the chicken breast, took it home and washed it before cooking it. We all ate lunch and later on that evening, my baby started throwing up. No one else got sick. I can’t be sure that it was the chicken but I don’t think I’ll be buying from him again. It all comes down to finding the fine line between doing what the locals do and being aware of your own sensibilities.

Mal de Ojo

Before coming to Mexico, I learned that it is not polite to look at babies and children without touching them. As an American accustomed to the large amounts of personal space we need, I always preferred to comment on how lovely the baby is but not to touch her. Here I learned that if I complimented a baby without touching her, it could lead to the baby receiving “mal de ojo,” or evil eye. I needed to touch the baby on the head or the arm. This contact assured that she wouldn’t suffer any negative effects due to one’s admiration. The idea is that if someone admires something so much that she wishes it were hers or feels envy, this negative energy is transferred to the baby, however well intended it may be.

In every market in Veracruz, you can find a seed called “ojo de venado,” or deer’s eye, attached to a small, beaded bracelet. Sometimes this seed has an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe or a saint superimposed, but not always. These are used to protect little babies from strangers and the vibes they may carry. My mother-in-law explained to me that many mothers in past generations placed an open pair of scissors, in the form of a cross, beneath the baby’s pillow as a form of protection. You can also wear anything red or attach a red string to the baby’s wrist. These beliefs are limitless, and many have changed over time.

My son has worn the “ojo de venado” he was given and we’ve picked out red socks for him on more than one occasion. I no longer get nervous when strangers go out of their way to touch him on the head. What’s more, I’ve learned to do the same.

Susto: A Personal Experience

Since we’re talking about “susto,” I’d like to share a personal experience. When my son was only few months old, he fell. As new parents, we were sick with worry and fear, even though Diego showed no sign of injury. He didn’t seem in the least bit affected by his bump. My immediate reaction was to let out a cry and swoop him up in my arms, examining him and running my hand over his little body. Letting out a cry, it seems, is a surefire way of bringing about a case of “susto.”

Shortly after that, he always had cold, sweaty feet. When I say sweaty, I mean drops of sweat ran from his toes down to his heels. He began to wake up in the night crying, something he’d never done before, and any loud noise or unwelcome stranger would make him scream and grope at my neck. At my mother-in-law’s request, we took him to a woman known for having the ability to cure children of “susto.”

The “curandera” (healer) was a happy, round little woman with gray curls and a warm smile. She took Diego into her arms and gently took off his clothes all the way to the diaper. She then reached over to a clay bowl filled with a warm, herbal infusion. She quickly rubbed him from his head to his toes. He began to cry and look around the room for familiar faces, for mommy and daddy. I thought, “Well this obviously isn’t working.”

When she handed him over to me I noticed that his feet were a warm, pink color. They felt warm and dry for the first time in weeks. More importantly, he was back to being his happy, easygoing self. Some things are not easily explained.

Los malos aires

When traveling in Mexico, you should be aware of “los malos aires.” Literally translated as “the bad winds,” this phrase can refer to a cool breeze or even negative vibes.

This is the reason mothers bundle their children up beneath three layers of flannel blankets, two layers of pants, a couple shirts, socks and good tennis shoes. I remember when I went to the US Embassy in Mexico City. Mexican mothers carried their babies beneath layers of clothing and cloth while American mothers held their babies in nothing but shorts and t-shirts. They obviously hadn’t heard of “los malos aires.”

This is also the reason one should never run around barefoot. Here in Xalapa, you should always wear shoes, even if it’s hot. Since I grew up barefoot, this has been a point of conflict between my “suegra” and me.

When my son was a newborn baby, people frequently came by to see him. They wouldn’t hold him as soon as they stepped through the door, though. They would wait for “los malos aires” to wear off before exposing the baby to them. In this case, “malos aires” refers to street vibes. Xalapa can be quite chaotic. All the traffic, smog and grumpy people can be considered “mal aire” and can affect the littlest people more than adults.

Don’t be surprised if someone stops you in the street to tell you to bundle up. They are only trying to save you from “los malos aires.”

Adventures in TelMex Land

I have to interrupt this segment on “malestares” in Mexico to share with you our TelMex adventure. If you’ve already spent a significant amount of time in Mexico, you’ve heard of TelMex. Not only that, you’ve also helped strengthen the TelMex Empire.
If you’re not familiar with Carlos Slim and the TelMex monopoly, check out these this post to get a little background:

Once you’re familiar with size and strength of the Empire and the incredible “tranzas” that helped build it, you’ll understand my frustration with the following “anécdota” (anecdote).

We rent a small cabin to a friend. She has been living there for almost two years. Sometimes the phone bill arrives, but usually it doesn’t. Since the only thing TelMex does well is cut phone lines and charge large sums of money, she has been without a connection far more than she has been with one. So she decided to put her foot down. She decided to say “¡Basta!” (Enough!). She decided to cancel her phone line, well, our phone line.

So back in December, my husband and I trekked down to the TelMex offices and said that we wanted to cancel the phone line. Our friend has paid all outstanding dues, so the kind lady behind the desk hit a few keys on her keyboard and said, “There you go. I cut your service.” She told us that we would have to come back in 15 days to make sure there weren’t any more charges. My husband informed her that we would be out of town. “No problem,” she said. “Come by when you get back.”

So about 17 days went by and we went back. Apparently, we were too late. They told us that “come back in 15 days” should have been followed by, “or we’ll reconnect your phone line, charge you a fee and make you do it all over again.” Oh, and that they were going to charge us 500 pesos. Some say those 500 pesos were for calls made after the line had been cut (!?). Some say it was a reconnection fee. Some say they didn’t know what the fee was for, but there it was nonetheless.

After raising his voice and saying something about the injustice of TelMex and the corruption in Mexico, my husband stormed out and made his way to the PROFECO (Procuraduría Federal del Consumidor). There we placed our “queja” (complaint) and went on TelMex’s head office.

Fortunately for us, the manager was once my husband’s student. So, as is customary in Mexico, we were treated well, those inexplicable 500 pesos were taken off the bill and the line cut all because we knew the one with the power.
This is just a small lesson in Mexican bureaucracy.