Saturday, February 23, 2008

"In case of emergency, know your Spanish"

(Published February 23, 2008 in The Guadalajara Reporter)

Several months ago I had one of those life-flashing-before-my-eyes moments: as I stepped off the 622 bus on Agustin Yañez, a motorcyclist slipped into the bus lane on the right-hand side without a trace of deceleration. A split-second or millimeter difference would have put me in the hospital, or worse.

Thrown into the vertigo of an emergency room without the comfort of my mother tongue or an English-speaking doctor, I can only imagine how I would have reacted. The fact is, communication barriers exist even during scheduled visits with bilingual doctors in Mexico. That alone should be motivation enough to prepare in case of an unpleasant stomach episode on a rural roadtrip or an ill-fated scorpion bite on the Teuchitlan ruins.

I consulted Dr. Carlos Rodriguez Zarate, the medical subdirector of the San Javier Hospital in Guadalajara’s Colonia Providencia, for his advice to English-speaking patients being treated in a Spanish-speaking world. Zarate performs directorial duties in the morning and runs a private cosmetic medicine clinic in the afternoon, often treating native English-speakers.

It is comforting, first of all, that his hospital does much to accommodate bilingual patients: chief members of the nursing staff are required to take a medical English course, and the hospital employs two English speakers to handle administrative tasks, like working out medical insurance. But even so, many English-speakers are not happy to be there.

“Patients are often afraid, especially to be at a Mexican hospital,” Zarate said. “They want to explain their symptoms and they try to find people who speak English.”

Patients are likely to be anxious in the hospital regardless of the language they speak, but surely more so for those left out of the loop. The antidote to fear, he said, is preparation.

“I recommend patients carry a little card with their brief medical history, the medications they take, and any allergies they have. It’s a good idea, especially if they get to a place they don’t know.”

As a doctor, Zarate wants to know specific symptoms a patient is experiencing, when they started, and when they got better or worse. This requires a basic Spanish vocabulary related to time and health quality. There are countless Spanish-English medical dictionaries online that will help you sort out your symptoms, especially if you have a chronic condition like hypertension or diabetes you’ll need to explain to any doctor.

And if you’re experiencing mystery symptoms, Lorenza Ochoa, a second-semester medical student at the Universidad Autonoma, suggested a few helpful phrases to help the doctor divine your affliction. Remember, the doctor is a respected individual and should be referred to as usted.

Me siento mal tells the doctor you don’t feel well: add de + body part to explain where. If the pain is localized you can simply point to where it is and say, me duele aqui.

To ask the doctor what you’re suffering from specifically, say, que es lo que tengo? and, es grave? to inquire if the issue is serious. Next ask usted puede tratarlo? (can you treat it?) and if the answer is no, ask the doctor to explain what other options you have: que otras opciones hay?

Ochoa emphasized the importance of understanding the doctor’s instructions—a confused headshake will not help the doctor solve the problem. Don’t be afraid to jump in and say, puede explicarme otra vez? (can you explain it again?) or, puede explicarmelo lentamente? (can you explain it slowly?)

The doctor is one person who will never judge your bad gringo accent or your nervous stutter. If you still have trouble understanding her directions after several repetitions, try asking her to write down the directions for you: Puede escribir las instrucciones para mi?

Apart from online dictionaries there are great take-along ones for quick reference. Zarate showed me a chunky, colorful book about the size of a billfold called “Medical Spanish Made Incredibly Quick” (by Springhouse). It’s waterproof and washable allowing the user to jot notes on the pages, and separated into categories by bright plastic tabs. The book lists questions in a simple yes-or-no format for easy communication. It’s the perfect bilingual resource for travelers to Mexico or permanent residents who frequent the doctor.

Communication, said Zarate, is the key. If after a doctor’s visit you remain doubtful about any symptoms or medications prescribed, all respectable medical professionals should be available to clarify concerns by phone or email.

Friday, February 15, 2008

"A lesson in hairdo lexicon at a more than fair price"

(Published February 16, 2008 in The Guadalajara Reporter)

Inspired by last week’s Mexican film release of the gruesome Stephen Sondheim musical “Sweeny Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” which admittedly has more to do with cutting necks than hair, I decided to take a step to overcome a long neglected fear: a haircut.

Let me clarify: a haircut in Mexico. It has been almost four years since I have let a professional take to my locks, which started the day I stepped foot into this country as a study abroad student. Half of the fear comes from the aesthetic backdrop I witness here every day, sort of prom night ’84 meets Menudo reunion tour. Mexico has a style; it’s just not mine.

And the other half has to do with the language of beauty. I feel uncomfortable having a stranger design my head when I can’t articulate the desired style in a foreign language.

So it was time to get empowered, in that dazzling pink, post-feminist, Cosmopolitan, Carrie Bradshaw kind of way. Because if women have learned anything from Hollywood, it’s that it takes beauty and brains to win that million-dollar lawsuit.

The beauty school Instituto Sol, located on the corner of Independencia and Revolucion, offers the right price for a cut: free. They’ll also do your nails and make-up for the same rate, and any extras, like hair color, are greatly discounted. The disadvantages might overwhelm the customer used to a professional, relaxing environment. It’s one big room choked with primary colors and people—students, teachers, and clients waiting with babies and guitars.

And if your stomach turns at having a 16-year-old with one month of scissors in her hands cut your hair, it’s not the place for you. But Gaby (who was careful to point out she’ll be 17 next week), a slight, effervescent girl with a zebra-printed flat-ironed mane, gladly helped improve my vocabulary and, in fact, worked wonders on the poof that was my hair.

Let’s start with anatomy of el cabello (that’s your head of hair). El fleco (bangs) rests above la frente (the forehead). The top of your head is called la coronilla, where your crown would go if you were royalty. Depending on how your hair falls, la sutura sagital is the line that parts it down the middle. Las puntas are the ends of your hair.

Gaby told me that the most requested cut is based on the look (the same in Spanish) of Barbara Bazterrica, a popular protagonist of the telenovela “Amor en Custodia” played by Mexican actress Paola Nuñez.

There are three integral elements to that ’do. The first is a short, razor-cut fleco framing la frente. The second is shoulder-length capas (or capitas, which mean layers) onduladas (wavy, coming from onda, or wave). And the third is pieces of long hair stemming below the curls and falling flat (lacio) over the shoulders. The result looks silly and cumbersome on anyone other than the actress herself, but it’s a great vocabulary builder.

As coloring goes, rayos or rayitos will brighten up el cabello by highlighting strands of hair. Gaby explained that cortinas (literally, curtains) are an exaggerated form of lowlights—a dye job alternating between natural and colored layers on the underside.

If your hair suffers from orzuela (split ends), or is reseco (dry) and maltratado (damaged), Gaby recommends la ampolleta, a special treatment to help the mistreated cabello recover. The Instituto Sol offers la ampolleta for around 30 pesos.

My nuevo look was painstakingly but agreeably completed by the young stylist, who next asked if I wanted a moldeado and brushing—a blow-dried styling with a round brush and a puff of mousse (also the same in Spanish) the size of a grapefruit. Gaby’s teacher glowingly approved, I was relieved of the barber’s chair, and thanked Gaby for her care and insight. I paused by a mirror to tzuj and re-fluff my mousse helmet, and was set to go.

So, I survived unscathed, broke the language barrier of la belleza once and for all, and stood empowered and satisfied after the ordeal. Elle Woods would have been proud.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Avenida La Paz in February

These trees are the cure for depression. Click on an image to see the flowering "primaveras" close up.

Friday, February 8, 2008

"Guadalajara hip-hop artist keeps it clean"

(Published February 9, 2008 in The Guadalajara Reporter)

A long time ago in a land far away—the early ’90s in South Central Los Angeles—a raucous, marginalized, graffiti-painting, marijuana-smoking, break-dancing youth movement was born, enjoyed an unprecedented commercial success without having to soften its rowdy image, and soon scattered its influence down south of the border like wildfire.

It was the birth of Latin hip-hop, and its newly minted Mexican stars largely went underground, straying from their chicano counterparts’ notoriety while managing to maintain a precarious popularity to this day.

But it never really stuck in Guadalajara. There have been swells of recognition in Monterrey as well as in Mexico City, where hip-hop artists now can be found on stage at least once a week. Perhaps the more conservative Tapatios were never ready for anything more rebellious than mariachi or the brass blitzkrieg that is banda.

There is one man, at least, who remembers otherwise. Skool 77, a.k.a. Pablo Sergio, is probably the most celebrated rap artist, or “urban poet” as he calls himself, to emerge from Guadalajara. Back in the day when hip-hop started to catch on in Mexico, Skool claims he had no talent for break-dancing but loved to sing and write music, and soon fell into the scene.

“Here in Guadalajara there was a dance program on television, ‘Bailando y Ganando,’ and that’s where the rap community of those times got together,” Skool reminisces over a cappuccino. “It was on Saturday at noon, and after the show was over everyone would go to a nightclub and keep going.”

For a rapper known to don a red and black lucha libre mask onstage and who has a music video on YouTube featuring a graffiti artist spraying his image onto a wall, Skool is surprisingly baby-faced and has kind, dark eyes that don’t hold their gaze long. His rap style isn’t particularly aggressive, but it sounds like you might get some spittle thrown your way if you were to step too close.

Skool is what one might call saintly in the world of rap. He preaches purely non-violent social and political messages, and lives by the clean principles he sets. “No soy gangster, no soy hardcore,” he spouts in one song.

“The important thing is to set an example,” he contends. “At a concert I can’t tell young people to not use drugs, and then go snort cocaine backstage later. I think we are far from that.”

But how far away does that depart from the original art? What would Cypress Hill be, for example, without its psychedelic swampiness and parodied drive-by shootings, sounds wholly created under the influence of illegal substances, born from poverty and race riots?

“I think that in the beginning of hip-hop in the black community in the Bronx, they had a hard time trying to get heard,” Skool responds. “Initially it was a rebellious movement that tried to tell people, we’re different, and we’re trying to do something important. Later, I don’t know what happened to hip-hop, who bought it or who finished off its truth.”

Skool is in the midst of his own evolutionary period: last Saturday he released his final album, “Hasta Luego,” before taking a break in his career that may become permanent. On the same day the album dropped, he performed in Mexico City along with several other national groups, one from Spain, and special guest Guru, an artist originally from Boston considered to be a pioneer in the Jazz hip-hop crossover.

After 12 years of making music, Skool confides that the time has come to work on other, more personal goals, to take some time to clear his mind. The result is an admittedly less vigorous sound, a little softer around the edges. “Hasta Luego” might just be the perfect ending, though.

While an earlier album, “Sesiones Abstractas,” sounds like he might have collaborated with Beck circa “Midnight Vultures”—frenetic, electrified and funky fresh—the goodbye disc has a decidedly R&B vibe. Keyboards are focal and the bass beats groovily paced.

There’s even a bonus track called “Cancion de cuna” (“Lullaby”), which samples an acoustic rendition of “The itsy bitsy spider” over what sounds like a synthesized rubber band. The lyrics imagine a conversation between a new dad and his young child, lamenting the inevitable loss of purity: “You still don’t know about war, you still don’t know about obstacles, you still don’t know why innocent people die in prison.”

Skool isn’t leaving the Latin hip-hop scene quite yet—he’s the star of a new radio program on channel Rock Radiante 1480 AM. “Perros de reserva” (“Reservoir Dogs”) is a chance for Skool to showcase what’s new in the world of Mexican and international rap, with a little rock thrown into the mix. He’s excited about the recognition Latin hip-hop is receiving as of late, while the big-money U.S. industry appears to be in decline.

“For us it doesn’t make a good impression that people of color are talking about women, mansions, cars and champagne, because we don’t live that reality,” Skool says. “I have a reality. I have a job at a company, I see how the workers suffer with low wages, and I see all the garbage that the media feeds us.”

Skool wrote a song a few years ago called “Hip-hop in black and white.” It’s jazzy, beginning with a throwback sax riff backed by a suave piano. The song alludes to simpler times in Mexico’s history: “black and white like a Cantiflas or Santo movie…like photos of Zapata or of Villa.” Colors, for Skool, are red like a bull’s blood or yellow like sensationalist journalism; they separate us into political affiliations and social castes.

Whether or not the “good old days” really were so great, hip-hop in black and white is exactly what Skool’s career has been—a desire to return to the romanticism, the idealism that started long ago with some fed-up young renegades in L.A.

"Streaming keeps your ears flooded with the sounds of Spanish"

(Published February 9, 2008 in The Guadalajara Reporter)

To be certain, many expatriates living in Mexico find themselves in an English-speaking bubble.

The trip to the corner store might initiate a bit of Spanish small talk in the vein of “Hi how are you?” or “Do you have tortillas today?” But once greetings are mastered, the learning process often plateaus.

A professor once suggested an invaluable tactic to keep my ears flooded with the sounds of the Spanish language, no books on tape necessary: radio streaming. “Streaming” is a pleasant sounding e-term that consists of a constant, live flow of multimedia from a provider to an end-user (you).

In my experience most radio stations’ websites now provide a link to begin streaming instantly. Open your music application (I use iTunes), select either broadband or dial-up on the station’s page according to your connection, and that’s about it—just like switching on your radio, the program will begin to stream and you’ll catch it in media res.

And here is why streaming will become your favorite Spanish tutor: hundreds of university radio stations from all over Latin America are just a few clicks away.

Try, to start, our very own Radio Universidad U de G, which can also be heard on the local dial at 104.3 FM. The shows are broadcast from the 12th floor of the university administration building on Juarez and Enrique Diaz de Leon.

If you listen in the morning you’ll probably catch a few news and interview programs. El Expresso, for example, broadcasts Monday through Friday at 10 a.m.; it’s like an intelligent version of The View. Put the show on while you tidy up the house or exercise – the trick, I’ve found, is to not treat the listening as an active training exercise, but to let the conversations flow and calibrate your ears.

Don’t focus on every word you don’t recognize. But realize that because the interviewers and their subjects are being recorded for an audience, they are speaking clearly and articulately, and might be easier to understand than your chatty neighbor. Choosing shows from different countries is also a great way to adjust to regional dialects.

During an interview note the pauses in speech, the ums, ahs, ays; bueno, pues, este … These intermediates indicate thought progression within a dialogue, words whose equivalences in English are difficult to translate accurately and are mostly learned by hearing within a context.

The greatest benefit of the international broadcasts, unlike pre-taped Spanish lessons, is that the information is current and you might just learn a thing or two in the process. Try to follow the U.S. primary elections on the Colombia National University’s station, for instance. On a recent show, professor Maria Teresa Haya of the Externado University deemed Hillary Clinton “hard-working, but remote to poor Americans,” and discussed Barack Obama’s “racial triumph.”

What’s more, some stations provide a sidebar listing a mixed bag of recently recorded broadcasts so that live streaming is not necessary – simply select a theme based on your curiosity at the moment. On the University of Puerto Rico’s radio webpage, for example, you might choose from a film critique of The Great Debaters, a lecture on alternative medicine, or hear a mental health expert discuss suicide prevention. On Colombia’s webpage look under “Franjas” and select from economic debates, rock music on vinyl, or (although it might defeat the purpose), a French lesson.

A secondary benefit of this medium is the remarkable variety of music the university stations program. Most have a jazz hour, plenty of regional sounds, throwback pop (I turned on Chile’s station yesterday and was assaulted by “What about LOVE!” by Heart), and usually more avant-garde picks. “Nouvelle Extravagance” on the U de G’s station, an afternoon music variety show, plays folk, rock, hip-hop, indie, and world.

Radio streaming opens the door to a free and accessible world of information in Spanish. Take advantage of the possibilities. Explore the medium, and make listening a habit.

Check out each university’s webpage for program listings.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

"Federal aid allows baker to make headway"

(Published February 2, 2008 in The Guadalajara Reporter)

As a certain diva might say, that carrot cake was like buttah. It achieved a moistness poised between that of a fruit and pound cake (the secret was in those pineapple slivers), and the whipped icing, spread about as thick as the cake itself, would’ve made Martha Stewart swoon.

My birthday indulgence was the result of more than just a good recipe. Esther Lopez Cabral, the owner of a little bakery on the corner of Belgica and Fermin Riestra (a block away from the Super Gigante on Niños Heroes and Tolsa shopping center), is a visionary of confections and a true self-starter.

Esther’s story starts about 18 years ago, when her twin daughters were toddling two-year-olds and she was a traveling social worker. While the girls appeared normal, the doting mother noticed a discrepancy in their mental development. A single mom, she took the risky decision to leave her job and take care of the children full-time while selling odds and ends out of her home, like clothing and make-up, for income.

The bakery started as an experiment: a small table, little cakes and breads and sacks of cookies. Recognizing her daughters’ handicap, Esther enrolled the girls in CCATI, an affordable training school where they learned to bake; later they helped their mother at home in the kitchen.

“I was thinking about the future of my daughters, knowing that they would need to learn something manual,” Esther reflected.

And then, around four years ago, Esther saw an advertisement on a public television channel for a federal work assistance program. Shortly thereafter she applied for help from the “Productive Investment Project,” which doesn’t give her cash, but provides all tools and equipment she needs to run her business.

“I don’t need money to eat,” she explained, “but I can’t go out and buy an oven. Everything I earn I need for basic costs of living.”

The program furnished Esther with a refrigerator, two worktables, an industrial oven, and a scale to kick off her new venture. This year she’ll receive a mixer, a blender, and a microwave oven.

These days business is improving. She still sets her confections on tables peeking out of the iron-barred double doors of her kitchen, the cookies prettily tied with colored ribbons, the cakes laced and powdered. It’s always a good sign when customers start ordering “the usual,” and that divine carrot cake reportedly tops the list.

Esther would like cookies to become her specialty. They’re sold at 100 pesos per kilo and in flavors like walnut, cinnamon and pumpkin seed. Cakes range from 80 to 180 pesos depending on size, and can be made to order with a day’s notice. She also offers gelatins and pies.

Esther is a committed advocate for government assistance: “There are many government programs that help people who want to work,” she tells me, and insists that one needn’t be destitute or unemployed to participate – only willing and persistent. For example, the state program Emprende provides low-interest loans from 5,000 to 30,000 pesos for small business start-ups.

Esther’s days are satisfyingly non-stop. When not running deliveries or coaching the twins in the kitchen, she attends CCATI to expand her own culinary education. She has thrived, not just survived, for the health of her family, and it shows in every bite.

La Pasteleria Fina Lolisara is open Monday through Friday, 1-8 p.m. Calle Belgica 700. Tel. (33) 3812-9480.

"Collectors search for rare finds at city's leading antique market"

(Published January 26, 2008 in The Guadalajara Reporter)

It is a leisurely Sunday. The sun and breeze blend sweetly as I stroll down a car-free Avenida Juarez among families holding hands. I am on my way to the stretch of Avenida Mexico between Chapultepec and Americas, where around 100 antique sellers have set up shop for the last 12 years in a market called the “Trocadero.”

This is a tianguis like no other – with no publicity, says the market’s coordinator, Armando Boyzo Nolasco – and the unique finds draw hundreds of people from all walks of life. The spread of paintings, jewelry, books and memorabilia are laid out under tents and umbrellas. Without the verbally assailing vendors you might find at the San Juan de Dios market in downtown Guadalajara, it makes for easy browsing.

I begin at the east end of the wide aisle, beneath the lady of liberty with her hand outstretched toward the market like an auctioneer announcing her wares.

Coming up on my right is a plain tent and a bearded man with thick glasses. He has set open on a table a bulky notebook containing rows and rows of collectible coins. Despite being unversed in coin history, I flip through until I notice a crate of labeled National Geographic magazines, similarly systemized with labels coordinating to the collector’s roster. My eyes light up and I select a few editions from the year I was born.

The collector pitches me a set of old encyclopedias in English, but I walk on. An elderly couple sits wordless under the shadow of their tent next-door, and Pedro, one half of the pair who looks
as dusty and historical as the paintings he sells, rises only after I prompt him.

What Pedro sells, among other antique art odds and ends, is retablos. I point to one and Pedro dusts off the small sheet metal square painted with oils, which roughly depicts a man kneeling at bedside, looking to a little blue virgin etched in the right corner: “Virgin de Zapopan give me health money and love thank you very much [sic] – Rodolfo Gutierres 1935.” The prayer, painted in childish black letters, floats over his head like cartoon script.

Pedro offers a retablo at 225 pesos. He tells me the art form is an important part of Mexican history, each painting a personal expression of gratitude to a life-saving virgin (others illustrate near-death experiences with a crocodile, a shark, and an amusement park ride called the “Hammer”).

There are piles of fantastic costume jewelry, new and old, which tempt me to fool with the dangling clip-on earrings and silver broaches like I’m sneaking through my grandmother’s armoire. I wade through collectibles like old Coca Cola ads, Cantinflas movie posters, a Marlboro cigarette machine and toy cars. A vendor sells goods collected by a traveler named Anthony Piraino: swords, horseshoes, cast iron door-knockers, furniture, and painted boxes.

Along my way I overhear a woman explaining the purpose of a gourd and perforated metal straw to her friend. I am curious too, so I introduce myself to Pauline VanHavere of Chapalita, who relocated from the Canadian province Saskatchewan last March. She is backpacked and amiable, and shows me how yerba mate is steeped and sipped from the Argentine tea bowl. I wish Pauline and her pal luck and move on.

My favorite find is on the west end steps: it is a specialized bookstand, a relief after shuffling through used book miscellany all day. Ramon Alvarez Rodriguez’s books are all about Jalisco history. He has guidebooks from the ’70s for English-speaking tourists, books about various neighborhoods in Guadalajara, and most interestingly, he sells entire bound copies of rare and important pieces of Tapatio literature, such as “Guadalajara de las Indias” by Jose T. Laris.

I leave feeling like I’ve walked into another era, or at least deep into someone’s attic. I read postcards from Lucky in Grand Rapids to Negrito in Guadalajara, looked through the lenses of a Hawking’s double meniscus camera collector Patricio Acevedo handed me, and read about children being lifted from the rubble of a deadly earthquake days after I was born.

Nolasco puts it well: “We are successful here because of the memories people have about things they’ve kept and the sentiments they have for old times.” The good old days can be visited at the Trocadero every Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.