Monday, March 21, 2011

Sugar and Spice

It’s been too long, I know. But the güera’s back in action!

I’ve always believed a place takes on meaning from the people you know there. I love Chicago because of the energy and enchantment of the city, but what’s pulling me back there is my beloved family and extraordinary group of friends.

Before Christmas break, I left Cuernavaca nearly every weekend to visit friends in Mexico City. I didn’t feel like I belonged to this quiet little place to which I had been sent to work. That changed, however, with my New Year’s resolution to dance more salsa. Molly and I began taking salsa classes and then going out with our compañeros after class to practice at the local salsa hot spots. What we realized after a couple of weeks of dancing was that the Cuerna salsa community is relatively small and tight-knit, but that is also has a revolving-door hospitality service for foreigners like us. They took us in not just as guests but as friends. Along with swimming in my swim club, dancing has taken up my after school hours: class on Wednesday and Friday evenings and practice with the locals at Los Arcos (a restaurant that plays live salsa music and the social hub of downtown Cuernavaca) on Tuesday and Friday nights.

Unfortunately I don't have any videos of me dancing to show you, but I will share a favorite salsa song of mine.

I love dancing salsa, not because I’m good at it. I most definitely am not. I love it because it's sugar and spice - it fills me socially and physically. It connects me with a group of characters who have helped make Cuernavaca my Mexican hometown.

With my salsa friends at Los Arcos

I’ve grown roots here in the form of relationships which will make leaving very difficult. I’m satisfied, however, knowing that these roots, even left buried and dormant for a while, will survive the test of time. My Cuernavaca salsa community, my roommate Chino and his family, my students at the university, the wonderful John and Joan Markovich (a retired couple from the Philly area and Molly’s and my adopted Cuerna parents), and my nearby Mexico City friends will keep me coming back to my home here in México.

With Mexico City friends

With a group of my students at a local carnival

With Molly, my friend Dee from Litchfield, John and John, and Dr. Linda Parkyn (more on Dee's and Linda's visits to come!)

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Los Papás Johnson Come to México

The second week in December, I had the great privilege of hosting my parents in Mexico for five days. It was a treat to be able to introduce them to my friends; show them the university where I work and some of my favorite spots in Mexico City, Cuernavaca and the nearby town of Tepotzlán; share with them a sampling of the exceptionally delicious Mexican cuisine; and give them a taste of my Mexican life. Here's are some highlights of our time together...

Mom and Dad enjoying some ice cream in my favorite Mexico City neighborhood of Coyoacán.

With Covenant friends Tom and Janice Kelly at the restaurant El Cardenal in Mexico City.

A beautiful variation on the chili relleno - just one of the many delicious tastes on our Mexican food tour.

With my good friends Riley and Jaime at a fantastic restaurant in Mexico City called La Tecla.

In my apartment in Cuernavaca.

I had fun showing Mom and Dad around my hometown, the City of Eternal Springtime

Love you, Mom!

With my Cuernavacan friend, Jorge.

Getting my favorite Mexican drink, a michelada (a cold and spicy drink with beer, lime juice and several hot sauces), with Mom and Molly in the neighboring town of Tepotzlán.

Sending them off at Benito Juarez International Airport in Mexico City. That same day I left with my friend Molly on a two and half week backpacking trip through southern Mexico and Guatemala (trip pictures will be posted soon).

Thanks, Mom and Dad, for coming to visit me! I'm looking forward to more friends and family who will be coming to visit in the coming months. ¡Todos tienen la bienvendida!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Half Time

Here's what I've been listening to lately. A little Half Time pump up music, if you will:

Last week I finished my first semester as an English Teaching Assistant at my university in Cuernavaca. Even though I'm only about 2/5 of the way into my Fulbright grant year, it feels like I've made it to Half Time. That is to say, I'm using this Christmas vacation time to stop and reflect on all that I've done in Mexico, appreciate the life I've established here and strategize and get excited for what is to come.

Of most importance, of course, has been my work at the university. I have seen many of the students gain confidence in speaking English with me over the course of the semester, and I have had many meaningful cultural exchanges with them.

This is my Sociolingüistics class, a group I grew to love. From the well-traveled profesor I learned much about cultures around the world. From the students I learned plenty of useful Mexican slang. They alo gave me an inside look into Mexican university student culture (read: where to hang out and drink cheap cerveza after class).

A few weekends ago I traveled with this class to a former mining town, three hours north of Cuernavaca, called Real de Monte. The community was settled by British immigrants in the 1800s who came to work in the mines. In Real de Monte the Brits introduced fútbol (soccer) to Mexico and left behind the tradition of eating pasties (rich, flaky empanada-like pies). In addition to eating hoards of delicious pasties and taking tours and such, we stayed in cabins and had a memorable camp-fire under the stars, complete with s'mores and ghost stories.

In addition to working as an English Teaching Assistant, I volunteered at a Red Cross clinic once a week this past semester. My motive for doing so was to offer a small something to my community and also to learn a bit of medical vocabulary in Spanish, as I hope to be able to communicate fluently someday as a doctor with Latino patients. I don't think I really offered the Red Cross doctors much more than entertainment with my chitchat, but it was a worthwhile experience for me, and it was so fun to wear the white coat!

Something else I did in the First Half of my Fulbright year was a bit more off-the-wall, but it was an interesing cultural experience and a super fun time: I joined a swim club at a pool in downtown Cuernvaca. I enjoyed swimming with the high school students and adults who came to the pool for community and exercise and I loved our coach, whom we only knew as Profe. He is the ultimate coaching type; he always sports wind pants, overblows his whistle, barks orders at us and chomps gum the whole time. Oh yeah, and he's a chain smoker. I was thrilled when he finally learned my name after a month and a half (before he called me güera. Now that we've bonded, I can't wait to get back to club in the Second Half!

There is so much I have come to appreciate about my Mexican life during my first stretch of time here. For one, I have fallen in love with my hometown of Cuernavaca. It's called the City of Eternal Spring, because it is sunny and warm every day. The picture perfect colonial architecture built by Cortés in the 1520s sets the stage for fun shops and food stands and lovely familial ambiance. I travel a lot on the weekends - especially to Mexico City, a short hour bus ride away - but I always love coming back home to beautiful Cuerna.

I'm also extremely thankful for the friends I've made here. In addition to a few excellent Mexican friends, our group of English Teaching Assistants scattered around central Mexico has become tight. Furthermore, I am lucky enough to live in the same town with one of them, the goofy, brainy, marvelous Miss Molly Porth. Molly and I became friends by default; Fulbright randomly placed us at universities in the same town. We remain friends, however, because, as destiny would have it, we happen to be a match made in heaven: we share a love of adventurous eating, food pictures, cafés, low-key traveling and a host of other things.

Speaking of the marvelous Molly, she and I will soon embark on a backpacking adventure through the southern states of Chiapas and Oaxaca where we will spend Christmas and New Years. But first, my parents are coming to visit me on Thursday! They will be here five days, and I plan on taking them to my favorite places and giving them a taste of my Mexican life. Looks like the Second Half of my Fulbright year will be starting off with a bang. I'm so pumped!

Friday, November 5, 2010

I Love My Job

Another piece of my international love belongs to my work at the Autonomous University of the State of Morelos or la UAEM, as it’s called here. I go to school four mornings a week, Monday-Thursday, commuting an hour each way by bus. This was not an initially welcome lifestyle change for me – my commute in college was a two minute walk – but I have grown to enjoy my morning and afternoon travel routine. Packing onto the #13 bus that brings me up the hill to school and back down again to my apartment gives me a sense of being in solidarity with the student and working class communities. Usually when I board the bus around 7 in the morning, the majority of the passengers are taking naps and I happily join them, although finding a comfortable position can sometimes me tricky. I need more leg room than the average Mexican.

It took a little while for me to connect with my students. I was hoping they would love me right away, but in typical Latino fashion, they were initially skeptical of me as a newcomer and warmed up to me little by little. Now that I have gained the students’ trust, I have the pleasure of hanging out with groups of them in between classes outside of our school building. As many students are not allowed by their protective mothers to go out on the weekends, the school day is central to their social lives. I love it when the students include me in their gossip sessions or invite me to eat tacos with them after class. When two of my students confessed their crushes to me the other day, I knew I was finally in!

While I work relatively few hours – about 16 a week – I believe in what I’m doing at the school and I think it’s being received well by the students and teachers with whom I’m working. I assist in two English conversation classes a week in which I typically give Power Point presentation on some aspect of U.S. American culture that is relevant to the lesson being presented by the main teacher. When the class was learning how to describe places, I talked to them about my hometown of Chicago and showed them pictures of the “El,” the Art Institute, the Cubs and our local celebrities. I wasn’t surprised that they were familiar with more faces than those of just Oprah and Obama. The fact that they recognized Steve Carell and Vince Vaughn reminded me how much U.S. pop culture has permeated their society.

The best presentation yet was last week when my friend Hannah and I dressed up as a bunny and cat, respectively, and celebrated an early Halloween with the students. We told them about typical costumes and treats, parades and party games. Then we played scary music, read them ghost stories and shared with them my favorite Halloween treat, caramel apple pops, brought to them by Hannah all the way from Chicago. U.S. American Halloween was a big hit with my Mexican students!

In addition to those two classes, I also have the privilege of teaching an advanced conversation class once a week to about 12 students. My hope was to give these students an opportunity to participate in more challenging dialogue than what they were accustomed to in their other English classes and to give them practice speaking with and writing for a native English speaker. In the three meetings we have had, I have been pleased with what I’ve seen and heard. For their first two assignments, I asked the students to write about an aspect of their culture that is important to them as Mexicans and later to present to the class a song or music video that was a uniquely Mexican profile or story. What they shared blew me away. I was moved by the pride I saw in my students, pride for their country and pride for being Mexicans in the face of the negative stereotypes that exist of them in the world. It angers them that many people think of narcos when they think of Mexicans. “We are so much more than that!” they said. My students told me with their pictures, videos, songs and stories that they want the world to know that the Mexicans are extraordinary cooks, dancers, artists, writers, musicians, scholars, celebrators of life.

In the fourth class I attend, I participate as a student and not as a teacher. It is a sociolinguistics class taught in Spanish by a brilliant, witty PhD named la Dra. Norma Angélica Juárez Salomo. She has traveled extensively, speaking at conferences about international educational exchange and Mexico’s role in this globalized world. The language used in class is technical and unfamiliar to me, so I often don’t understand what is being discussed. Nevertheless, I feel privileged to learn from such an interesting woman and to work with such dedicated, talented students. Taking a class, as I understand, is not part of the normal duties of a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant; however, la Dra. Norma invited me to participate as part of my quest to exchange cultural understanding. She believed the immersion in a Spanish-speaking classroom and the experience of being overwhelmed and confused by the language and discussion would allow me to stand in the place of and identify more with the students I am here to teach. She was right! My Sociolinguistics class has helped solidify my relationship with the students and teachers at la UAEM as a true partnership.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

I am In-ternational Love

It’s been a while since I’ve written a post, and there’s a reason for this. Over the past two months I’ve been transitioning to the post-grad lifestyle and falling in love with my new home in Mexico. To prepare you for the gushing that is to follow, please listen to this song. My roommate, Chino, is an aficionado of Latino reggae, and I have – yes – fallen in love with it too.

There is so much I have to catch you up on, readers, that I have divided this ode-to-la vida mexicana-post into a mini series of postitos (the diminutive of “posts,” if you will).

My international love… where to begin? Here!

I am convinced that Mexican food has more flavor, color and variety than any other in the entire world. Mexican mealtime is pretty extraordinary too. Most people eat a hearty breakfast in the morning, which might include a hot dish like tacos or chilaquiles (fried tortillas bathed in salsa). Then around noontime, many eat a snack-like lunch followed by a big, lengthy meal called comida in the mid- to late-afternoon. A light supper happens around 8-10 p.m. and typically consists of sweet bread and milk or maybe a taco or two.

Give me a moment to describe afternoon comida and sobremesa to you. Most students and business people go home to eat comida with their families, and it’s typically a lengthy, relaxed affair – a far cry from our familiar work-day power lunches. The meal usually starts with fruit, soup or small plate of pasta and is followed by a plato fuerte or main dish. This is often some sort of meat with a side of vegetables and tortillas. Oh yeah, and there’s always homemade salsa and some type of agua, water flavored with hibiscus flowers or blended with fresh fruit and sugar. If you’re not at home for comida, you can find many mom and pop restaurants which serve comida corrida (the Mexican equivalent of fast-food but much healthier and tastier) which includes all the elements of a complete comida for 35 pesos (around $3)

Once the meal is over, people don’t jump up and move on with their days as I am accustomed to doing in the U.S. They linger over the unwashed dishes, sometimes for hours, and enjoy relaxed conversation or sobremesa. There’s laughter, there’s good-natured arguing and there’s always more cerveza to go around.

This practices of comida and sobremesa are consistent with the strong Mexican value of family and relationships, and they are some that I hope to bring back with me to the U.S.

After learning about the stages of entry into a new culture last spring with the esteemed Dr. Linda Parkyn, I realize that I am still in the honeymoon phase with my life in Mexico. I know I'm scheduled to hit the crash-and-burn phase of entry (okay, I don't remember the technical terms for these stages, but you get the idea) sometime this month. Even now, not every moment is peaches and cream (my purse was stolen last week, for example), but what can I say? Right now I'm smitten! If you can handle more of this love fest, reconnect with the güera again tomorrow evening to hear more about la maravillosa vida mexicana.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

¡Viva México!

Today is an extraordinary day to be in Mexico. On this day 200 years ago, a Roman Catholic priest named Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla addressed the townspeople of Dolores, calling for a revolt against the Spanish government and for the defense of their land, religion and rights. The Battle of Guanajuato ensued a few days later and Mexico’s 10-year War of Independence was under way.

Every year on the night of September 15th, Hildalgo y Costilla’s famed speech is commemorated when the president gives a grito to a crowd of hundreds of thousands of people gathered in Mexico City’s Zόcalo. This grito is repeated by governors and mayors in cities and towns all over the country, including Cuernavaca.

Last night my friend Molly and I went with high expectations to Cuernavaca’s Zόcalo for the grito and we were not disappointed. Among the thousands of people were families and food vendors and merchants selling everything from giant bubble wands and balloons to patriotic knickknacks of every kind. The entertainment, which included dance and music groups honoring la patria, took place on a giant stage which was temporarily erected in the plaza and began early on in the evening. The security presence was high - bags were checked by police and most people were frisked upon entering the gated plaza - but there was energy and excitement in the air. The the crowd really got going with the performance of the headline artist, the one and only Pedro Fernández (Yeah, I didn’t know who he was either. Check out the fantastic music video below for a small taste of Pedro. My favorite part is the traditional mariachi garb of Pedro and his band juxtaposed with the football cheerleader-esque dancers.)

When Pedro finished, the mayor of Cuernavaca gave the much-anticipated grito and the crowd went wild. Below is the English translation of the grito (courtesy of Wikipedia) issued last night all over the country by Mexico’s president, governors, and mayors:

Long Live the Heroes that gave us our Fatherland!
Long Live Hidalgo!
Long Live Morelos!
Long Live Josefa Ortiz de Dominguez!
Long Live Allende!
Long Live Aldama and Matamoros!
Long Live National Independence!
Long Live the Independence Bicentennial!
Long Live the Centennial of the Revolution!
Long Live Mexico!
Long Live Mexico!
Long Live Mexico!

It's hard to describe in words what it felt like to participate in the grito alongside the Mexican people. It gave me chills, to say the least. Here is a Youtube video of the grito in Mexico City that gives you an idea of what it's like. It's long, so just watch the beginning:

In addition to the Bicentennial celebration, today also marks the 100-year anniversary of the Mexican Revolution in which Francisco Madero led an uprising against the dictator Porfirio Díaz and for which Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata became legendary heroes. Also worth noting is a marked significance of this year's grito. While the wars for independence and political democracy have been fought and won by the Mexican people, the war against the narcos continues. Hopefully the spirit and determination of the likes of Hidalgo and Morelos will bring this country to triumph once again. ¡Que Viva México!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Mexico City, Cont'd, and Roomies

A taquero friend. We estimated that he made about 100 tacos a minute. Watching him was absolutely mesmerizing.

A delicious torta.

My friend (and fellow North Park/Camp Squanto alumnus) Riley and I admired this pig's head we found at a taco stand.

With Cristiana, a fellow güera and friend.

My roomate Israel and his German girlfriend Cristiana, who will leave us on Sept. 15th. I will miss her.