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Archive for the 'Memoirs from Xalapa Mexico' Category

Malestares in Mexico

When traveling in Mexico there are a few “malestares” (malaise) that you should watch out for. You may or may not be familiar with them, but you’ll most likely hear of them after spending a significant amount of time here. In the next couple of segments we’ll take a closer a look at a few of these conditions.
“Susto” (fear) is a psychological or physical reaction to trauma. There are a number of stories about children who go missing, witness a traumatic event or experience other stressful situations and later show physical or psychological reactions that warrant the attention of a “curandero” (healer).

For example, my husband’s uncle, as the story goes, fell into the river when he was a little boy. That alone was a “susto.” But then, when he popped his little head up out of the water, he saw his father taking off his belt. What was really a meaningless gesture was taken for pending doom: yet another “susto.” He sprung out of the river and ran into the house to hide from the leather belt. He got down on his belly and slid under the bed only to find himself face-to-face with a chicken who was just as spooked as he was.

They say that the robust little guy turned into a skinny, pale boy. He started scraping the paint off the walls and eating it instead of real food. It wasn’t until they found a local “curandero” (healer) that he was able to leave his “susto” behind. Although, they say, he was never the same.

Adiós Compadre

On January 2, the oldest cantina in America Latina was shut down by the UNAM (Universidad Autónoma de México). El Nivel (The Level), with its license number 001, has been around since at least 1872.

It has served as a meeting place for writers, artists, the homeless, entertainers and even presidents. Until recently, the cantina was filled with characters with “apodos” (nicknames) like “El Brujo” (The Witch) and “El Colosio” (for his resemblance to the ex-presidential candidate). On any given day you could find “Nivelungos” (El Nivel Barflies) such as “El Tío Monchiváis” (Uncle Monsiváis) and “El Doctor Tatatiú-tatatiú” seated at the bar drinking any one of the joint’s specialty drinks: El Nivelungo, La Patada de Mula (The Mule’s Kick) and La Sangría.

The cantina is often called the last vestige of the “macho mexicano”. It has become a national symbol worthy of detailed ethnography. El Nivel could have possibly been one of the most “Mexican” cantinas still in existence.

Because the UNAM owns the building, they’ve decided to close this chapter of Mexican history to make way for new projects. The newspaper El Universal has a great video short that I highly recommend. You can check it out here:

Finding the Meaning

You may suggest that translating is nothing more than finding one word’s equivalent in another language. You may believe that your dictionary can solve all your grammatical woes. Your electronic translator or software may seem to be the most reliable way to get the author’s point across.

You would be wrong.

An experienced translator doesn’t just exchange one word for another. If we’re talking about poetry, for example, words have very little to do with it. A good translator reads beyond the words on paper to find the true intended meaning. She taps into the images, sounds, feelings and experiences which the author invokes. That is what she translates.
Ramón Rodríguez is a local poet of international renown. He turned 82 not long ago. In his honor, the University of Veracruz has recovered some of his most important work. Two translations of T.S. Eliot’s poem “Virginia” appear in the literary journal La palabra y el hombre. The first is a more literal translation and the second is Ramon’s interpretive translation.

Here is the poem “Virginia” in English:

Red river, red river,
Slow flow heat is silence
No will is still as a river
Still. Will heat move
Only through the mocking-bird
Heard once? Still hills
Wait. Gates wait. Purple trees,
White trees, wait, wait,
Delay, decay. Living, living,
Never moving. Ever moving
Iron thoughts came with me
And go with me:
Red river, river, river.

Here is a translation done by Octavio Castro López:

Río rojo, río rojo
Tu tranquilo flujo ardiente es silencio
Ninguna voluntad es todavía como un río
Apacible. ¿Os conmoverá este afán vehemente
Sólo hasta que hayáis escuchado
Al cenzontle? Las colinas apacibles
Esperan. Esperan los pórticos. Los purpúreos árboles,
Los árboles blancos , esperan, esperan,
Se detienen y declinan. Vivir, vivir,
Jamás transformarse. Y aun transformándose
Mis férreos pensamientos vinieron conmigo
Y conmigo se van:
Río rojo, río, río.

Here is the translation done by Ramón Rodríguez:

Río Rojo, rojo río
fluyendo silencioso,
ningún silencio como el tuyo,
¿Escuchas el sonido de los pájaros?
los Pájaros que esperan,
como las colinas, como los puentes,
como los blancos árboles que esperan,
que permanecen, decaen, viven, viven,
inmóviles, movibles,
lo que se mueve conmigo
lo que se va conmigo:
Río Rojo, rojo río.

El caballero y la feminista

“Sé un caballero,” (Be a gentleman) a father told his little boy the other day, “y cárgale la mochila de la niña” (and carry the little girl’s backpack).

“Thank you, but that’s not necessary,” I responded. “She can carry her own backpack.” And so my stepdaughter and we continued on our way to school.

I also remember when my husband and I went to see our “partera” (midwife). She is a robust woman capable of shaking big babies out of large women. She needed to buy a “garrafón” (jug) of water. So she asked my husband, who’s about half her size, if he could carry it for her. Now our midwife is as much of a feminist as the next woman, but she is also accustomed to letting the men do the heavy-lifting. Later on she laughed about it and also wondered why my poor husband should have to struggle with the “garrafón” when she could lift it and carry it herself.

This same scene is repeated time and time again. The other day in the office a group of women were huddled around a plywood desk, whispering amongst themselves until one of them spotted my husband. There was no escape. He was volunteered to carry the desk to the next room while the five women stood around and watched.

This is when feminism gets a little muddy. On the one hand, men and women (here in Xalapa) are taught that “caballeros” (gentlemen) should open doors and carry “mochilas” and that women are strong and independent but shouldn’t use that strength to carry their own “garrafones”. It’s another take on gender roles I suppose. More on that next time…

Mexican Plurality: Comida

A lot of people have asked me general questions about Mexicans like, “What religion are they?” as if they were a homogeneous tribe or “What do they eat?” as though they were specimens under observation, or even seemingly simple things like, “They drive you crazy, don’t they?” Before responding I always wonder, “What do you mean by ‘they’?” So I always start out by saying, “In Xalapa…”

Yet now, I am now in Mérida, Yucatán- a world away from Xalapa, Veracruz. It seems to be the perfect moment to talk about the plurality of Mexican “cultura” (culture), “costumbres” (customs) and “comida” (food).

Let’s take the other day as an example. My “suegra” (mother-in-law) ordered “gorditas”. Now, in Xalapa a “gordita” is a corn tortilla made with a slight edge. It then has black refried beans, salsa and potatoes or any number of toppings added to it. We love “gorditas”.

In la Ciudad del Carmen, Yucatán, what the waiter brought my “suegra” was not the “gorditas” we know and love. It was rather bean and corn “masa” (dough) cooked as a patty and smothered in salsa. Delicious, but different. It’s the same story with “picadas”, “garnachas”, “tamales”, and a number of other foods.

Every place has its own way of preparing food. So what most Americans know to be Mexican food (Tex Mex) has even more variations than one can imagine. Mexican food is much more than tacos and tamales.

Mexican Plurality: Modismos

Every region in Mexico has its own way of speaking Spanish- its own sayings, regionalisms, lilt and accent. Xalapa and Mérida have very different ways of speaking Spanish. Here’s a look at some of the “modismos” (idioms) that have stuck out to me:

Te presto: This term is hard to get the hang of for most foreigners. “Prestar” is to lend. So, “Me prestas 20 pesos?” means “Can you lend me 20 pesos?” It’s a whole ‘nother tamale in Mérida. Here, “prestar” is more like “to borrow”. So if I say, “Te presto 20 pesos” it really means, “Can I borrow 20 pesos?” Clear as Agua Crystal, right?

Por: In Xalapa, people would say that I live on the street Golondrinas, “entre” (between) Martín Torres and Rebsamen. In Mérida, they would say that I live “por” (which in this case means “around”) Martín Torres and Rebsamen.

Quitarse: In Xalapa, when you are ready to leave a party, “te vas” (you go). In Mérida, though, “te quitas” (you take yourself away). For example, “Me quité a las cinco” (I left at five).

Separarse: In Xalapa, when you save a place for someone, “lo apartas”. In Mérida, “lo separas” (you separate it). “Te separé un lugar en el café” (I saved you a place in the café).

Ven acá: When my “cuñado” (brother-in-law) first came to Mérida, he was listening to his boss explain the ropes. They were standing next to one another, head to head, when “el jefe” (the boss) said, “Ven acá” (Come here). Rafa didn’t think he could possibly get any closer. Then he realized that “ven acá” means “pay attention”. Note: it’s pronounced “venacá”.

Un Mundo Pequeño

I’m proud to say that the “jarocho” (from Veracruz) influence is everywhere. When we arrived in Playa del Carmen, we stumbled upon a small café called D’Andrade known for its delicious coffee from Coatepec, Veracruz. We dined amid photos of Xalapa and its “alrededores” (surroundings), enjoyed “café veracruzano” and ate “enfrijoladas” and “chilaquiles”.
Last night, while strolling down “La quinta avenida” (5th Avenue), we spotted Spiderman. Next to “El Hombre Araña” was a friend from Xalapa. The same scene has repeated several times since our arrival. ¡”Qué pequeño el mundo!” (What a small world!); ¡Que pequeño es Xalapa! (How small Xalapa is!)

Yesterday we went to Tulum to check out the ruins and the beaches. While standing in line to take the little train to the Visitor’s Center, we heard flute music and light drumming. We looked up to see a large pole and the “Voladores de Papantla” preparing for their show.

Papantla is in northern Veracruz. “Los voladores” (the flyers) are part of the indigenous population. The rite consists of climbing to the top of a large pole or trunk. One man perches at the top of the pole and plays his flute and drum. The other four men prepare their ropes for their upcoming leap. Once everyone is ready, the four men let themselves fall headfirst from the pole and fly around it, “cada vez” (each time) closer to the ground until they pull themselves up and land safely.
Veracruz may not be one of the most well-known areas in Veracruz, but its influence is far reaching.

Contextual Stereotypes

In the United States, we are very racially sensitive. Given our dark past and turbulent present, racial stereotypes and language weigh heavily on our collective conscience. That’s why a couple other Cri Cri songs made me wiggle uncomfortably in my seat while my husband and kids danced and sang along with what seemed to me to be overt stereotypes. Then I remembered that the US and Mexico are two very different contexts, each with its own past and sensibilities. Our stereotypes do not apply to Mexico’s black population.

Take a look at these songs and see if you understand what I mean:

The title of the song, “Negrito Sandía” (Little Black Watermelon Boy), seemed offensive to me, but then came this verse:

Negrito Sandía, ya no digas picardías
(Negrito Sandía, don’t say any more dirty words)
Negrito Sandía, o te acuso con tu tía,
(Negrito Sandía, or I’ll tell your aunt on you)

y mientras ella te va a agarrar,
(And while she’s gonna get you)
en los cajones he de buscar
(In the drawers I’ll have to look)
una libreta para apuntar
(for a notebook to jot down)
los garrotazos, que te va a dar.
(the beating she’s gonne give you)

Con el palo que utiliza
(With the stick that she uses)
el castigo te horroriza,
(the punishment is terrifying)
y después de la paliza
(and after the beating)
me voy a morir de risa.
(I’ll die laughing).

Then there’s the song, “Negrito Bailarín”, which could also seem immediately offensive. Keep in mind, though, that in Mexico there is nothing wrong with calling someone, “negro” (black) or “moreno” (dark-skinned) or “güero” (light-skinned). The song is about a toy that dances when you pull the string. It seems to have all of the stereotypes that Americans created and have since been working to reverse. Remember that these stereotypes do not belong to Mexican culture. The one stereotype that does correspond to Veracruz’s black population is the way in which the dancing boy talks. Have a look:

Un negrito bailarín
(A little black dancing boy)
de bastón y con bombín,
(With cane and with bowler)
con clavel en el ojal,
(with a carnation in his buttonhole)
pero que se porta mal.
(but how he misbehaves)

Eh, negrito, lo compré
(Hey, negrito, I bought you)
para ver bailar a usté.
(To watch you dance)
perezoso, mueva los pies.
(Lazy, move your feet)…

… Morenito ¡vamo’ a ver
(Morenito we’ll see)
si por fin se anima usté.
(if you finally cheer up)
y nos baila algo de tap!
(and dance a little tap for us!)

Finally, there is the song called “Cucurumbé”. It’s about a little girl who goes to the beach and stands in the waves so that they may make her face white, like the seashells and the moon that she envies. The fish come up to her, tip their hats, and say, “¿qué no ves que así negra estás bonita, negrita Cucurumbé?” (Don’t you see that you’re beautiful black, negrita cucurumbé?)

You can listen to Negrito Sandía here:
Negrito Bailarín here:
Cucurumbé here:


An American friend of mine would constantly whack her boyfriend on the shoulder and say, “Get your mind out of the gutter!” You see, her boyfriend was an aficionado at “albures”. Anyone learning Spanish and planning on traveling to Mexico needs to be forewarned about them, especially if you are a woman.

You see in Mexico, anything at any given moment could have two meanings. I remember one time when I was traveling by myself in some city in southern Mexico when I got lost. It started to rain and I went deeper and deeper into some unknown “colonia” (neighborhood). I hailed a taxi and gave him my hotel’s address. I made some silly comment about the rain to which the “taxista” (taxi driver) replied, “¿Te gusta mojarte?” (You like to get wet?) I didn’t get it at the time. It wasn’t until a year or so later that I realized what had really happened.

I had already been living in Mexico for quite some time and spoke Spanish fluently before I realized that I couldn’t walk into a store and ask the attendant, “¿Tiene ustéd huevos?” unless I wanted to become the butt of the joke. The word “huevos” in Spanish, especially among men, refers to testicles. Instead of questioning a man’s manliness, most women ask, “¿Tiene blanquillos?” Now that’s something they don’t teach you in Spanish class.

Ringing in the New Year

For my husband’s family, New Year’s is generally a family event. We all get together for enormous quantities of food, drink, music and talk. Children run wild, “comadres chismean” (ladies gossip), the men play poker and we all drink and are merry until the clock strikes midnight, at which point we eat 12 grapes so that our 12 wishes for the New Year will materialize.

This year is different. This year we did anything but the traditional familial gathering. We went to Playa del Carmen to stay with my “cuñado” (brother-in-law). An apartment that may cost 1000 pesos in other parts of the Republic, like in Xalapa for example, will cost around 4500 pesos in Playa. So my husband, his daughter, our baby, my “suegra” (mother-in-law), my “cuñado” and his partner all settled into inflatable mattresses in a one-room apartment to ring in the New Year.

Traditionally, families sit down to dinner at midnight, although they start celebrating sometime in the afternoon. This time we made it until 9 and then gathered up our 12 grapes to head out to “La quinta avenida” (Fifth Avenue).

I must say, all seemed eerily calm, until, that is, we made it to the hot spots where foreigners from all over the globe were congregated, drinking, dancing and partying the year away. Here, playing tourist for the evening, we ate our twelve grapes and chimed in to the shouts of “Happy New Year!” and “¡Feliz Año Nuevo!”