Archives for category: mexican people

I’m back in the US,  but I can’t go without saying….

While in Mexico for a year, I developed an addiction that will be hard to get out of my blood, and certainly out of my heart, and that is my addiction to Mexico City. I visited five times–about a three-hour bus ride from Queretaro– and I was trying to figure out a way to get back there before I left. It did not happen. (I will just have to save up and get Aeromex from O’Hare.) And I will be back. The electricty that runs through me at the thought of this second largest city in the world will need recharging.A summer storm rolls in over La Reforma

I first visited late into my PC service, and when I finally did, I followed the usual routine: Go to the main plaza and figure it out from there. I was headed to the Zocalo anyway, to the Maya exhibit at the National Palace. I had no idea what I woud see when I came out of Juarez, one of the many streets that radiate from the central plaza. The Zocalo is 10 acres, anchored by the Cathedral, the largest in the world, and it seemed that Mexico had shown up that day, or at least a good percentage of the 30 million who live there.  I never saw so many people in one place at one time. A boy pulling a tarp heaped with scarves almost knocked me over. Everyone was selling something, or going somewhere. Where? Crowd-control fences  help direct the hoards moving  in and out of the metro stop to the dozens of neighborhoods surrounding this city on the plateau.

In front of the cathedral...Mexicans dressed for every occasion, in colorful indigenous skirt and vest, and bullet-proof vest

In front of the cathedral…Mexicans dressed for every occasion, in colorful indigenous skirt and vest, and bullet-proof vest

I just stood there, out of the way, gawking, which is  not a good idea–especially in Mexico City. You have to look like a big-city person. But now I had seen the big-city mother of them all. I have wanted to write about it, but I feel like that little kid pouring the ocean into a hole in the sand. I’d just had to pour more and more…

The Maya exhibit, thousands of years of history written on stone, still grips me. The shophistication, the horror–the smiles and terror etched on the faces. The two laughing statues with their pets–some things do not change, even in thousands of years. I spent a whole afternoon there, after wandering into an architectural museum on Juarez where I meant to stay a minute. Right. Hours later after studying sketches, the work of Barragan and O’Gorman, the beginnings of the building of Mexico City, a city built on a Lake Texcoco that the Aztecs had accommodated with canals, boats, gardens and pyramids–which the Spanish promptly destroyed, filling in the lake, killing off the people.

The Aztec Empire--detail from Diego Rivera's vast, fabulous murals in the National Palace on the Zocalo

The Aztec Empire–detail from Diego Rivera’s vast, fabulous murals in the National Palace on the Zocalo

When Cortes saw Tenochtitlan (Mexico City) for the first time, he reported to the king that it outrivaled Babylon and all of the greatest cities of the world. They had to have it. As if in retribution, Mexico City is sinking. I can only hope that Moctezuma is smiling somewhere.

When excating next to the Zocalo, the Mexicans unearthed one of the grandest temples to the gods ever discovered: The Templo Mayor. To walk the paths through the ruins, to see the altar of sacrifice, the black lava rocks and statues, the serpents dug up, is, in a word, thrilling.

At the Templo Mayor, figures rest against steps of the pyramid.

At the Templo Mayor, figures rest against steps of the pyramid.

The museum next to the dig is a treasure of pottery with painted stories, exhibits of gold, turquoise and obsidium, carved stone, including the great circle that shows the dismembered body of Coyolxauhqui. The story goes that her mother, Coatlicue, was sweeping one day when she picked up a ball of feathers, held it close to her stomach, and later was born, fully grown, Huitzilopochtli. Coyo was so jealous, she plotted to kill her mother, but the brother vowed to protect her, dismembering his sister with a fiery serpent.

On my visits to the city, I  anchored each trip to one or more excursions to museums or exhibits. I saved the Anthropology Museum in Chapultepec Park until last. I took the bus down La Reforma and got off at the park–wear good shoes and rest up before the trek. It is a lovely walk along the tree lined Reforma, but you need stamina for this museum, elevated on a rise in the park with a large “shade”–a beautiful length of stone that seems suspended in the air.

Stone shade at the archeology museum in Chapultepec Park hovers in the courtyard.

Stone shade at the anthropology museum in Chapultepec Park hovers in the courtyard.

The museum appears to be deceptively manageable, with two levels, one wing on each side of a courtyard, but the interior is vast, and fascinating. On one level scenes of different parts of Mexico show the cooking, the costumes, music playing (of course).  One exhibit shows the history of the maguey plant that has been around for 10,000 years, its fibers, leaves, heart used  for blankets, clothing, medicine, shampoo, rope, shoes–and, of course, pulque and tequila (although tequila comes from the blue agave, a sister of maguey).

While the Zocalo was the center for these visits, the thread that held it together was La Reforma, a wide–we are talking wide–boulevard modeled on the Champ d’Elysses with grand monuments marking the roundabouts. The stretch between the Zocolo and Chapultepec park is a sort of embassy row, with  hotels, enormous shaded trees, plenty of space for leisurely strolling.

In Chicago, we have cows;    at the Franz Mayer museum in Mexico City, we hands--dozens and dozens of manos with themes.

In Chicago, we have cows; at the Franz Mayer museum in Mexico City, we hands–dozens and dozens of manos with themes.

On Sundays, from 8a to 2p, the central traffic lanes from the park to the Zocalo, a distance of some six miles, are closed for bikers, skateboarders, baby carriages, all sorts of wheeled Mexicans, hoards moving at their own pace in the glorious sunshine. I thought of my cousin, Kathy, and how I have to get her down here. I did not not get a chance to ride, mostly because I did not have the time, and the traffic in Mexico City is daunting. Crossing the street on uneven pavement requires full concentration while the cars and bikes come with amazing rapidity from all directions. In the rain, it is even more terrifying.

Terrifying and surprising. Isn’t that the essence of a memorable trip? Not too much, but just enough.  One thing about visiting a city this size is the number of surprises: the variety of street food, walking in off the street into a bakery that is a small village of treats, the colorful neighborhoods I barely got to visit (Coyoacan, you are next), the music at every turn–Garibaldi Plaza is dedicated to the mariachi with dozens of bands waiting for gigs, or standing around playing in the street. I may be a Chicagoan at heart, but I’m also a good bit Chilanga–a Mexico City aficionada!!

Nancy Nau Sullivan, a former English specialist in the Peace Corps in Mexico, is the author of this blog and responsible for the content.

The Dutch treat proved too much for the Mexican heat. In an exciting rout, the orange managed to out-score the green at the end of the second half. But they had to fight for it. It also helped that the drama queen, Robben, Number 11, threw himself on the ground a couple of times–the last successfully putting the Dutch in a position to score.

Very small fan not watching the game, Sunday, in the Plaza de Constituyentes

Very small fan not watching the game, Sunday, in the Plaza de Constituyentes

The atmosphere here in Queretaro was charged, but tentative. The cuetes (fireworks) started going off early on a rainy Sunday morning, and the day broke sunny. I started out for Hank’s to watch the game, and hardly a person was on the street, or in their cars (in a town of 3 million). Green Mexican jerseys hung in shop windows, selling anywhere from 70 pesos ($5.50) to 300 pesos ($23). Faces were painted with the red, white and green. People carried radios if they weren’t inside. All ears and eyes were on the game, mine included.

Noise is an important element in Mexico, especially for something so world-shaking as the World Cup. Every TV seemed to blare from behind gates and walls, in small restaurants and in the Plaza de Constituyentes where hundreds of Mexican watched the game on screens set up under a huge white tent. A couple of bands played. At Hank’s, a waiter beat on a tray for lack of a drum.

At Hank's, fans cheered when Dos Santos scored

At Hank’s, fans cheered when Dos Santos scored


The first half of the game lifted all of Mexico. They seemed to hold their breath. “Classico,” said the Mexican standing next to me when Dos Santos scored. Ochoa, the goalkeeper from Mexico City should be cloned, a player who throws himself, arms and legs, into the game. I wish he’d had a couple more legs at the end of the second half. He didn’t anticipate the give-away kick that tied the game.
Everyone was watching...here in a tortaria (sandwich shop) on Corregidora all eyes are on the screen

Everyone was watching…here in a tortaria (sandwich shop) on Corregidora all eyes are on the screen

At the half, El Piojo, the coach, was seen advertising Melox, the antacid. He’s probably drinking a bottle of it now. But what a joy to watch him with his team! His nickname, The Louse, pokes fun at his wide physique, his less than stylish demeanor. So what. Eveyone loves him, a third-string coach who no one believed in except himself, and his team. And now all of Mexico. When the Dutch scored, he waved: “Bring it on.” At the end of the game, in the face of defeat, he was pale and cool.

Mexico should have had better defense, they said in the plaza…

Still, I like to see Mexico up and running. They often sell themselves short. But they have heart and spirit. They are winners, as far as I’m concerned. My four sons all played soccer. When they lost, their Dad would say, it’s how you play the game. “Yeah, to win,” they would say. Maybe. Winners come in all colors, sometimes orange, or red. And sometimes green. If you don’t have heart, and spirit, what’s the point?

I have to agree with Francisco Goldman, a writer for The New York Times who writes about Mexico and says the style of a soccer team often shows national character. Of Mexico, he says, “I see a team without stars–gritty, hard-working, pretty humble, resourceful, creative, disciplined, joyous, friendly-seeming players … These are values that we see enacted and re-enacted all over Mexico and in Mexican communities elsewhere, everyday.”

They played the game. They are an inspiration.

The views expressed are mine and do not necessarily reflect those of the Peace Corps.–Nancy Nau Sullivan, University English Specialist, Mexico

It’s inevitable, the falling apart. First a tooth, then the hip and the knee. Pretty soon you can’t remember what you had for breakfast. I suppose we’re all doomed, and it can begin with an innocent bowl of popcorn. I was chomping on a tasty kernel at the bottom of the bowl (we love that part) when I realized it wasn’t popcorn I was trying to crunch away. It was my tooth. Horrors! All those bad dreams coming true, of my teeth falling out, or melting, followed by dreams I was flying over Cancun looking for my children….but that’s another story.

The tooth breaking didn’t hurt a bit, except in my brain. Now I had to visit the dentist. In Mexico. I dreaded it, but it was nowhere near the dread I felt later when he recommended I have an extraction and an implant. My poor sister went through this procedure, and it was awful. She was bilked for thousands, the crowns kept falling off, or she got infections. One time she marched back to the dentist to have repairs done, but his office was closed for good. Gone Dentist. I had dreams of yanking and hammering, and eventually, my head coming off at the foot of the Mexican torturer.

Well, it all turned out differently than expected.

The fear and not knowing how this was going to go down were the worst, and I was not in the habit. I’ve had very few visits to the dentist, except for cleaning. When I went for a check-up one time, I was summarily dismissed: He looked in my mouth and said, “You’re boring. Go home.”

On the occasion of the popcorn tooth, I had to do something. I did not want an implant, but the alternative was to have another hole in my head, or down the road, be that really old person, putting my teeth in the glass at the bedside. Yuk.

I insisted on visiting Dr. Izaguirre here in Querétaro for a consult; the alternate dentist was available, but he had done Saint Virginia wrong, practically immobilized her with pain and suffering, so I waited to see Dr. A. He told me that Mexico City and Miami are pioneers, in the forefront, the best, really up there, when it comes to implants. He got out the dentistry books to show me what an implant looks like, and after leafing through a decent number of photos of open, bloody and fleshy-pink mouths with implants sticking out of the gums, I closed the book. OK. Do me. How bad could it be? After all, I had five babies, two of them C-section, which believe me, is not exactly like a tooth extraction.

The Peace Corps is nothing if not thorough. One might be a poor volunteer, a teacher, no less, but one is treated like royalty in matters of healthcare. Dr. A took a number of photos, the report was sent to the PC doctor and on to Washington for more consulting and approval. This took a month of back and forth, but I wasn’t complaining. One does not look one’s gift horse in the mouth.

The appointment was set for June 4th at noon in Mexico City, about a three hour drive. Dr. Ines, the Peace Corps physician, said she was going with me, and we were going to have a driver. I thought that was an excessive waste of a doctor’s time, and then I thought, maybe she’s going to be there to save me from the heart attack or revive me after anesthesia. Like I said, the not knowing is always the worst part. I really didn’t want to bug her for more details; the emails were already in the numbers, and, at all costs, I wanted to appear cool. Just like a teen-anger with ratted hair and a full felt skirt with a poodle on it.

Armando, behind the wheel of a brand new, spic and span, white SUV, drove tear-ass out of Querétaro down 57. We were an hour early. The clinic is at Pyramid No. 1, a high rise in the city, and the irrational thought of Aztec human sacrifice went through my mind. Doctor Ines went up to the clinic with me, filled out the paper work, chatted about her native Honduras, which took my mind off the on-coming procedure. She is a lovely woman, a thorough, caring person, and reminds me again of Latin America in general. I just love it. She was dressed in a hand-made Oaxacan top with embroidered birds and carried a Chanel bag.

Dr. Blanco is short, muscular, with cropped grey-ginger hair. He graduated from Columbia in New York in 1985, right before my daughter was born, one of the C-sections. He speaks in a soothing, reassuring tone that dentists use when they are about to shoot you up, pull, pound, stretch, and, generally, do all the steps necessary to perform an extraction and implant. The whole procedure, from implant to crown, normally takes 2 to 4 months. The bone has to grow around the implant/post before one is crowned. I told him I needed it done in 2 months because I was leaving. To where, he asked. Chicago, I said. Well, you could fly back here and have the crown done and it would be less than it would cost up there. No, I was thinking, my son’s birthday is August 21, and I am going to be there, eating cake, with or without a tooth.

My heart was pounding so hard I was sure my shirt was jumping off my chest. First, the Novocain. Then on to another chair. The chair. A box of metal posts. Tools. An extremely quick, small technician who spoke only Spanish, so I practiced. She asked for permission to put a bib on me, to give me a glass of mouthwash, excusing herself for this or that. Mexicans are so courteous, even before torture, that you just have to love it. Dr. B appeared from time to time to administer more Novocain and say something in that soothing dentist-speak.

Then, ramma-lamma-dingdong. It began, and talk about pulling and pounding. It reminded me of the C-section. Pulling, with no sense of pain. Just tugging and pulling, then the pounding, way down there into the jaw. I was his third that day before noon. “This is good. You have a smaller tongue than my other patient,” he said. “And very good bone.” Thank you, Gene Fairy, for the bones. I have other problems, but bones is not one of them.

The whole procedure took less than an hour. I came into the waiting room, and Dr. Ines was counting out 200 peso bills–90 of them altogether, about $1400 for the extraction and post. The crown would come later, in August, before I leave.

I sat in the back of the SUV leaning on the glass, watching the red, rocky Mexican hills roll by out of Mexico City, the clouds touching the mountains in the background. So beautiful. So done with the implant thing. My jaw looked like a baseball was stuffed into it. In the front, Armando was eating a cupcake and Dr. Ines was snoozing. I felt like I was six years old, not 69, carried along by people who care, granted, doing their jobs, but caring about what they are doing.

I was very tired. No Tecate for four days. Bummer. I went to bed, and now I await my crowning.

The opinion expressed herewith is mine and does not necessarily reflect that of the Peace Corps–Nancy Nau Sullivan, University English Specialist, Querétaro, Mexico

Las chavas  mexicanas...Judith, Pat, Mari and Evelina

Las chavas mexicanas…Judith, Pat, Mari and Evelina

Like most Mexican meetings, this one did not start on time. I arrived at the office at 12:58, panting, ready to go at 1 as advertised. I don’t go to many meetings with the agency where I volunteer, and besides, it was Friday. I normally give myself Friday afternoon off: After 18 hours a week of teaching, I’m entitled. But who’s complaining? I teach 9 to 11 most days, and then for two hours at 4. I have a very long lunch hour, and if I’ve been up reading a novel all night, I’m tired and I want to take a nap.

I didn’t really want to go to this meeting, but Ingeniero said it would be “special.” When he says “special,” I listen.

We were going to caravan to the meeting out in the country at a state cultural center. At 1:45, the train had not left. I waited at my desk looking over the various letters, resumes and practice essays my students send me from time to time for editing. Now I was looking forward to the meeting.

At 2:45, Mauricio came to get me: “Listo?” I had moved on to Facebook and was figuring the plot to a novel by then, but we got in the car, headed out of Querétaro, down the crammed highway of semi’s and dusty cars (a little like the Chicago Dan Ryan), passing fields of cactus and mesquite–those low round trees reminding me of thin women with short feathery hair–past the broken and black soil ready for planting. If I didn’t know where I was, I’d swear it was Argentina. As always when I’m on one of these treks, I pump the driver for info: What are your favorite places in Mexico (Cancun, Guanajuato, the place where the hot river meets the cold river in the Sierra near Jalapan). Music? Mauricio wanted to know my favorite music. The guitar, when my sons play it and sing–the blues from my youngest son, Letter in September from the eldest, Cádiz played by my third son, lullabies from my second son to the babies, Yesterday when the Beatles sing it, anything Judy Garland, Billie Holiday, Etta James, Nora Jones. I don’t know. I like it all, but I don’t care much for rap, except for when Eminem sings it. Mauricio likes balladas, rancheros, salsa, danzon (a mix of dance and Cuban influence from Veracruz).

After my meeting with Mauricio during the 25-minute drive, the special meeting started at 3:25. Ingeniero is funny, but I don’t understand half of the jokes. His sentences run together, and he uses colloquialisms that everyone laughs at uproariously. I got the general idea that the agency was doing very well, in fact, the secretary of education was there to say the “results are impressive in all areas with advances in science and technology… congratulations on your work. Angel Ramirez (Ingeniero) is an excellent leader.” The agency supported almost 40 students on scholarships in 10 countries–9 in the US. Many of them had been my students, and Ingeniero said so, and how happy he was I was there helping and teaching. That certainly made me perk up at the meeting.

Marco tends the chorizo, marinated beef and tortillas on the grill (the anafre).

Marco tends the chorizo, marinated beef and tortillas on the grill (the anafre).

The smell of smoke, of chorizo and arranchero (marinated beef), wafted into the meeting room. Time for comida. Wendy brought tubs of cooked meat, nopal (cactus), quesadillas, volcanoes, and the cake. The rondalla arrived: six men in black suits with guitars, their hair slicked back, ties knotted. One was Ingeniero’s son. Ingeniero sang, too. Evelina kept urging him to do a solo, but he declined–his throat, he didn’t have his guitar. Well, he sang along. He dedicated one song to the women–something lyrical that sang the praises of “divine” women and song and the bottle:

pudieramos morir en las cantinas
y nunca lograriamos olvidarlas
mujeres…o…mujeres tan divinas
no queda otro camino que adorarlas

Which translates something like this: We could die in the cantinas and never find ourselves forgetting them, women, o women, so divine. No other way remains then to adore them.

The Rondalla: Singing ballads mixes nicely with business.

The Rondalla: Singing ballads mixes nicely with business.

All of this sounds like the Mexicans aren’t serious about business. Al contrario. I think they understand the necessary balance of it, at least the ones I work with, my dozen or so comrades at HQ in Querétaro. They are on time for work, they grab the phones when Coco can’t, they stay long hours, they laugh, they share, they stop and have cake and sing for each and every birthday. They are courteous, and always concerned, but never intrusive. They have ideas. They seem to love my never-ending, annoying questions all the while I’m trying to be a large fly on the wall. I’ve never heard a cross word in nearly nine months. But when it’s time to mix the arranchero and tortilla with the meeting, it’s on.

This was a business meeting?

Sometimes people just know how to do business.

The views herewith are mine and not necessarily those of the Peace Corps–Nancy Nau Sullivan, University English Specialist, Queretaro, Mexico

Marco picks me up Tuesday mornings at 7:15 to go to San Juan del Rio to teach three classes at the university. One morning, he talked about traveling around Mexico, his favorite beach in Cancun, the missions around Jalpan, the adventure of climbing the Pena de Bernal (Mexico’s Rock of Gibraltar).

He kept saying “padre” this, and “padre” that. I couldn’t figure out what in the heck his father had to do with it.

Boy, I thought, he really is caught up in Dad. Maybe Dad visited all these places?

I tried to focus on Cancun, Ixtapa and the rest, but “padre” kept getting thrown into every sentence. I’d have to figure out the padre business later. I really didn’t want to interrupt him. He was on a roll, and the information was far more interesting than my preoccupation with “padre.”

Some time later, I heard it again: “padre.” What’s up with this? Are the Mexicans that crazy about Dear Old Dad?

Maybe. But the word “padre” most of the time has nothing to do with Dad, Edson told me. He is an accountant at CONCYTEQ where I am a volunteer. “Padre” means “good.” Unfortunately, “madre” means the opposite.

So, if you see a new pair of shoes you like in the window, or have a spectacularly good taco for lunch, you might throw in a “padre” when you are telling your friend about these good things in life, he explained.

Edson and I discussed the differences among the words for cute, pretty, and beautiful: It so happens that a man would not say something is “lindo,” but a woman would. The word for cute is “mono,” which is also the word for monkey–but Mexicans don’t use it as much as the Spaniards do. “Bonito” is much more commonly used in Mexico for everything that is pleasing to the senses: a baby, a sunset, a day. Say: “Bonito Dia,” which is what the woman in the grocery store always says to me. It is fun to say, and good to have. She tells me to have a pretty day. Thank you, I will.

All these words and their multiple variations packed into one language is enough to make your head swim. Just one more: “relajo,” which by itself, according to one of my students, a well-versed 16-year-old, means “chill.” However, “Que relajo!” means “what a mess!” Combined with a variety of other basic verbs, such as “echar” (throw), it can mean go on a bender, throw someone overboard, make eyes at or foam at the mouth. Just when I think I’ve got the hang of it, someone throws me overboard.

I’ve lived in Spain, Argentina and, now, Mexico, and I might as well have been speaking three different languages because the vocabulary and idioms are so various. When I arrived in Mexico, I asked the waiter in a restaurant for the location of the “servicio.” He wanted to know exactly what service he might offer. I wanted the bathroom. That would be “bano” in Mexico, unlike “servicio” in Spain. Mexicans have many words for the bathroom: “taza” (cup) and “trono” (throne) among the many. “Bano” will suffice. But in Spain they will think you are asking to take a bath.

I suppose the situation is similar among English speakers in England, New York and Ireland. But I’ve been to those places and I didn’t notice such a variation in vocabulary. Maybe it’s there, but I didn’t notice. I had no trouble figuring out the differences among lift and elevator, the “soddy” and “excuse me,” and black and regular coffee in New York although the latter involves an irregular amount of cream.

Language, of course, is an immersion process, one in which one must keep the ears and mind open, sometimes to an excruciating degree. I am not just speaking Spanish here. I learn the most about “language,” English and Spanish, from my students.

Jorge Luis, 27, has a facility for language. At 21, he worked in a youth hostel in Queretaro and met many international students. He then decided he would go visit the countries they came from. He lived in Italy until he “got tired of it,” then moved on to Sweden, Germany and France. He’s been to New York, Atlanta and up and down California. It was astounding, I noticed in class, when I lapsed into too many idioms, that he understood almost everything I said.  He told me every day he came to class, the word of the day that he looked up on his smartphone, most of which I’d never heard of: bedash, deke, achromic. He said he learned to speak English by watching Friends. When he was in Germany, he got the German version; in France, the French-speaking Jennifer Aniston and David Schwimmer. The writing is good, the content is age appropriate and, Jorge Luis added, “It’s entertaining, in fact, it’s hilarious.” I wanted to get his picture, but right now, he’s in China, and I can just imagine him finding a Jennifer Anniston in Chinese. Jorge will figure it out. He will tower (yes, and he’s Mexican) over the Chinese people, they will love him, his open, handsome smile and his Obama-esque ears that work extremely well in picking up the nuances of language. I expect great things from Jorge. Just picture it.

But back to Marco and our Tuesday morning drive: This week he asked me about “lentes.” I thought he was talking about beans–lentils, to be precise. However, “lentes” in Spanish is yet another word for eyeglasses. In particular, he wanted to know about Ray Bans. I told him I don’t know beans about glasses.

The views expressed herewith are mine and not necessarily those of the Peace Corps~Nancy Nau Sullivan, University English Specialist, Peace Corps Response, Querétaro, Mexico

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