Friday, May 30, 2008

"Understanding albures, Mexico's coarse, cryptic puns"

(Published May 31, 2008 in The Guadalajara Reporter)

The Mexican albur has no translation. It is at once a game, a dirty joke, an offhanded pun, and an attempt to verbally disarm a credulous opponent. It is, to be exact, a spoken slap in the face (or perhaps, as you’ll see, on the buttocks).

The art of constructing a particularly injurious albur, about which books and extensive Internet forums have been assembled, is not something the average Spanish-speaking foreigner is likely to be familiar with or able to interpret – or for that matter a native Spanish speaker outside the Mexican border. Albures are intrinsically Mexican and by their nature cryptic to the unwitting outsider. But the concept is certainly worth being familiar with, lest you trip into one.

The albur (whose verb form is alburear) is the macho lovechild of a “your mama” joke and a dirty limerick, with Jon Stewart’s comic timing. Its goal is to cleverly use words with double sense in a way that will catch their recipient offhand, or to make an enemy feel like less of a man. For that reason albures are almost always sexual in nature, if not belonging to other strains of coarseness.

As they come in the form of word play or double entendre, English conversion is nearly impossible. But anyone will understand an albur’s main ingredients.

For example, can you guess what the chorizo, banana, cucumber, corncob, and chili represent in an albur’s context? How about eggs, marbles, or melons? Deconstruct just about any popular Mexican platter (did I mention cream and cheese?) and each component serves as fodder for vulgar discourse.

While most examples are not newspaper appropriate, and are more comical when spontaneous, a few tamer ones will suffice. Here’s an albur, in Spanish and English so the word play makes sense:

“Cual es la diferencia entre una silla y un pulpo?” (“What’s the difference between a chair and an octopus?”) Answer: “El pulpo tiene tentáculos y la silla tenta culos.” (“The octopus has tentacles and the chair touches backsides” – to be polite.) Get it? Tentáculos (tentacles) versus tenta (touches) culos (rear ends).

Another: “No es lo mismo papas en chile que chile en papas.” (“Potatoes in chili isn’t the same as chili in potatoes.”) The difference is subtle: The former refers to a dish, and the latter to a sexual act (“papas” is a not too common synonym for sex).

More often, albures occur naturally between two people-perhaps friends, or perhaps a taxi driver and his unassuming passenger – as a result of one party naively mentioning his sister or that he had eaten something phallic-shaped earlier in the day. The alburs are thrown back and forth like a hot potato until a clear winner emerges, rendering the losing man speechless, and thus emasculated.

The author of, a website that attempts to define and classify various user-contributed albures, warns that “you must treat the world with a certain delicacy in order to avoid what’s called a ‘French albur’ or ‘self-alburearse.’”

In other words, don’t fall into a trap. You might be treading dangerously if you mention simply that your head hurts or that you’re hungry. Come to think of it, best to avoid food talk altogether – you never know where that will go.

Friday, May 23, 2008

"Citizens desperately seeking a subway find encouragement online"

(Published May 24, 2008 in The Guadalajara Reporter)

In a city where the pace of bureaucracy moves at a numbing speed and infrastructure problems soar exponentially, a group of ten young citizens has taken another route to solve Guadalajara’s greatest urban crisis.

A Facebook group called “Queremos un metro en Guadalajara” (“We want a metro in Guadalajara”), founded by Abraham Jaime Hernandez five months ago, has caught momentum as fast as the high-speed connection that brings it to computer screens all over the city. Members of the online social network Facebook, where users keep track of their friends’ hobbies, favorite videos and photo albums listed in personal profiles, have flocked to the activist group. Over 7,000 Facebook users now belong to “Queremos un metro.”

“We only had the idea to create a social consciousness, but we realized the group could go farther than that – not just as a Facebook group,” Hernandez told the Reporter last week. “We began by collecting signatures in universities, then we started contacting enterprises, unions, and government chambers, asking for letters saying ‘we support the metro, we should change the city and modernize it.’”

The Facebook group keeps a neat online archive of newspaper clippings and charts that support its case, in addition to photographs of uber-modern rail systems in cities such as Sydney and Vancouver. Envious group members, like children peering through the window of a candy shop, leave disparaging comments below the pictures.

Under Vancouver’s elevated train, user Gino Berruti laughed: “You’re asking for a lot. If only something like that was built, or even something worse that would at least help the people of Guadalajara.” To the map of Guadalajara’s existing one and a half “Tren Ligero” (light train) lines, user Aldo Vega commented, “Honestly, this looks really sad,” along with a frowning emoticon.

In only a matter of months, the group has opened Guadalajara’s eyes to a serious impending crisis. It is the most polluted city in the country, topping Mexico City, Monterrey and Toluca. There is one car for every three inhabitants, while the Mexico City ratio is one to seven. Guadalajara also boasts more car accidents that any other metropolitan zone in Mexico. Sadly, by the year 2030, it is predicted that a person will be able to walk at a faster rate than a car can drive within the city, due to mounting congestion.

With all that in mind, Guadalajara is far behind the rest of the world’s cities in terms of a modern metro system. Comparing population density with lines of metro provided, the city is at the bottom of the list, even below others with a quarter the inhabitants.

“If you have the opportunity to travel to other places, you see other metro systems,” Hernandez said. “Monterrey is building four lines. Mexico City has the subway, another line like a monorail, and a suburban train.”

Group coordinator and University of Guadalajara law student Maria Andrea Cuellar Camarena speculates that the original metro system, planned in 1975 as seven lines to be built in two phases, was abandoned as the city’s political atmosphere changed. “The project could take up to six years to complete, so a governor doesn’t want to start a project and have someone else get credit for its success.”

“You’ll remember,” added Hernandez, “that the bus system is owned by important political figures.”

The energetic group has gained more support for the metro movement in the last five months than any other organization has since the Tren Ligero project was abandoned. Thousands of signatures were collected on petitions, and in March, the Jalisco State Congress voted unanimously in favor of metro construction in a “point of agreement”-not an initiative of law, but a recommendation for action.

“There is no impediment,” Hernandez explained. “We have money from other countries [Japan, France, and Germany have expressed interest in financing the project] and from companies [Siemens, Mitsubishi, Bombardier, and Alston].”

The former director of the Tren Ligero system was also in support of the project. Current director Diego Monraz, however, is another story. The group met with Monraz three months ago when he proposed the new “sustainable mobility plan” that includes the Macrobus lines now under construction.

“We asked him why the subway is not included in the mobility plan,” Camarena recalled. “It’s the backbone of a city. He told us that if he had all the money in the world he wouldn’t do it. He has since changed his mind but that was just for political acceptance.”

A request for an audience with Jalisco Governor Emilio Gonzalez, who group members believe opposes the project, was refused.

“He just doesn’t want to get into a project like this,” said Alfredo Rodriguez Aguirre, who owns a graphic design studio. “We are planning for the Pan American Games, and he doesn’t want to have all the roads under construction.”

The group had more luck with President Felipe Calderon, who they met briefly at a press conference on April 30.

“We told the president about the project and he thought it was interesting,” Hernandez said. “We’re going to ask him to do studies of metropolitan mobility. If we have a study no one can refuse or deny the importance of having a metro system.”

“Queremos un metro” members insist that there’s an urgent need for a more extensive, environmentally-friendly transport system in Guadalajara. Sighed Hernandez, “I think we have reached our limits.”

“There was a need then,” said officer Pablo Sainz Albañez, referring to the original 1975 metro plan. “Think how much the population has grown since. For some reason, it’s no longer a priority.”

Any of the “Queremos un metro” members mentioned in this article can be contacted by email at

Friday, May 16, 2008

"Scholarships make Mexicans think big"

(Published May 17, 2008 in The Guadalajara Reporter)

A graduate from a Guadalajara university who aims to take over her father’s air ambulance company is the first recipient of a scholarship to study abroad named for Adolf B. Horn, the former U.S. consul general and president of the American Chamber of Commerce, who died last year at the age of 92.

Jessica Faubert had been accepted into several MBA programs in the United States but chose to enter the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Chicago.

As her father plans to retire in the near future, Faubert will return to Mexico after her studies and run AirLink Ambulance, a leading air medical transport company with bases in Mexico City, Guadalajara, Puerto Vallarta and Baja California.

“I need the finance background,” says Faubert, who studied at the Tec de Monterrey and speaks flawless English. “I just don’t have the skill set yet to be general manager.”

Faubert’s chance to study abroad comes courtesy of the prestigious Magdalena O. Viuda de Brockmann scholarship program, which gives outstanding Mexicans the opportunity to earn a Master’s degree abroad. This is the first year of the special Adolf B. Horn award.

Named for the mother of entrepreneur Guillermo Brockmann, who founded the program in 1993, the scholarships enable Mexicans to experience the values and systems of foreign universities, then apply what they have learned on their return to Mexico. In fact, each student selected is committed to staying in Mexico for five years thereafter and is chosen based on a potential to “provide a future contribution to the advancement and modernization of Mexico,” as the mission stipulates.

“We hope they will come back as bicultural people prepared to collaborate with local individuals,” says Anthony Rump, executive director of the scholarship foundation, which boasts an endowment of more than three million dollars.

As would be expected, the selection process is extremely competitive. A series of interviews narrows the applicant pool down to 12 candidates, who are promised the awards subject to proving they can finance the portion of tuition not covered by the scholarship. The applicants undergo a rigorous review by the program’s board of directors, a psychological exam, and are considered by two previous Brockmann fellows.

Faubert had no problem providing the scholarship committee with a detailed five- and ten-year plan. “I have so many ideas,” she says enthusiastically.

She would like the family business to be geared more toward information services. AirLink Ambulance currently focuses most of its energy in its infrastructural functions (the airplanes, pilots, doctors, etc.). Faubert wants to expand the company to work as an intermediary between customers and insurance companies. She cites new cost containment strategies that help save both parties money by looking out for exploitative medical services, such as hospitals that jack up bills for foreigners in crisis.

Faubert also plans to open up the business to a growing demand for medical tourism by offering package deals to Mexico for foreign patients, a booming industry that countries like India and Costa Rica have already caught onto.

Faubert was one of three applicants chosen from Jalisco; six hail from the state of Mexico, two are from Monterrey, and one from Tamaulipas.

Jose Fernandez, the selected recipient of the new Robert Leslie scholarship (awarded to a talented Mexican engineer) and ITESO graduate, is originally from Colima but has studied and worked in Jalisco for the last eight years.

Fernandez’s impressive resume already includes work as the head structural engineer at VAO Engineering, responsible for drafting and calculations of the Torrena project in Guadalajara, a telecommunications tower planned to be the tallest in Latin America.

He chose to study for a Master’s degree in order to manage entire projects such as the Torrena. He will attend a program in construction management at Auckland University of Technology in New Zealand, in part because it is a much more affordable option compared to similar schools in the United States.

“The culture there is very interesting,” Fernandez says. “It’s a mixed society – a British colony and indigenous people, which is a culture they protect.”

Rump says that the program’s international notoriety has lately generated more opportunities from universities than can be published in the scholazrship brochure. The French government, for example, will pay half the tuition of 75 engineering students who study at several universities in France (a program called Campus France); and Dublin City University in Ireland, Griffith University in Queensland, Australia and the University of Arizona all offer partial and total tuition waivers.

“This has been the highest honor I’ve ever gotten,” says Faubert of the experience. “I would motivate anyone to apply when going for higher education. It’s a reflexive process that is great preparation for university applications, and it makes you focus.”

Monday, May 12, 2008

"Shopping market flogs off-the-shelf art at equitable prices"

(Published May 10, 2008 in The Guadalajara Reporter)

“If a market for art exists, why not a supermarket?” ask the organizers of the SupermercArte, a bazaar in Guadalajara that replaces groceries with economically priced, original artwork.

The SupermercArte opened May 7 and will run for one month out of a temporary cultural hub on the highest level of Plaza Galerias. Customers grab miniature grocery carts and browse hundreds of small works of art by 44 different local artists.

“It’s as if people were going to buy tomatoes and onions, but instead of the tomatoes there are works by artists,” explained Marcos Hernandez, one of the artists participating this year by invitation.

The innovative technique is borrowed from a sister concept in Barcelona, meant to bring art to people who don’t normally frequent galleries or collect pieces. On one hand, the economic gallery makes already acclaimed artists’ works accessible to the public: this year’s participants include Waldo Saaveda, Jose Fors, and Alejando Colunga, known for his fantastic bronze creature-seats in Plaza Tapatia.

Alternatively, the SupermercArte gives up-and-coming artists a platform to show their work. Hernandez, who was the best-selling artist at the 2005 market, has not otherwise received much exposure. He believes his style, self-described as “abstract figurative, with oils, collage and photographs that I take,” is a hard sell. For the SupermercArte three years ago, he strayed from his regular approach, painting little pictures of cats for a better commercial bet.

This year, SupermercArte solicited 20 works from Hernandez, requiring that each measure no more than 40 centimeters and cost between 200 and 2,000 pesos. Hernandez offers his pieces at 200 pesos each.

“It’s a mix between a commercial style and my personal work, which is more abstract,” Hernandez said of the collection of small paintings he will sell this year. One piece, for example, depicts whimsical, floral twirls painted in agreeable pastels over contrasting patterns. It's abstract and fascinating while still office-friendly.

Participating artists receive a 50 percent cut from sales, and are credited for whatever they don’t sell. How much the project ultimately earns is not expected to be much -- organizers hope for a change in the public’s view of art collection more than large proceeds. A work of art, explains SupermercArte’s website, is a “unique gift with a constantly increasing value.”

Project coordinators have worked closely with the Jalisco Secretariat of Culture to create the market, which includes selecting the artists who contribute each year. “We collaborated together to develop an artistic aesthetic,” said Jaime Mor, one of SupermercArte’s principal planners hailing from Barcelona.

Part of the aesthetic vision involves eliminating the general public’s fear of galleries. At SupermercArte, buyers are encouraged to move close to, pick up, and touch works of art, like one might scrutinize a melon before purchasing it. Plaza Galerias was selected as the market’s exposition space for exactly this reason: “Regular people shop at plazas, not at art galleries,” Hernandez said.

The SupermercArte might even change the way people view Plaza Galerias, which often hosts cultural events. “We want people to stop seeing the space as just a place to go shopping,” said Maga Hernandez, a coordinator for the Secretary of Culture.

The SupermercArte is open during Plaza Galerias’ business hours, and will close after June 7. Plaza Galerias is located at Av. Rafael Sanzio 150 (between Av. Vallarta and Sebastian Bach), in Colonia La Estancia, Zapopan.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Forgotten your English?

ProEnglish recently started publishing an ESL newsletter for students and other clients, in hopes of one day converting it to newspaper form. Since its beginning I've developed and written all the content, so if you feel like practicing your English, click the links below. The articles are written at an upper-intermediate level (approximately). Enjoy!



(Look closely there, folks.)

Friday, May 2, 2008

"Mercado Corona, a vibrant market with tales to tell"

(Published May 3, 2008 in the Guadalajara Reporter)

Calle Santa Monica, a few blocks from the downtown cathedral and running perpendicular to Avenida Hidalgo, is choked with foot traffic at midday and smells of roasted meat, spices and strawberries mellowing in the sun. A blue cement awning provides shade for the peripheral vendors at one of Guadalajara’s most historic markets, the Mercado Corona, beckoning visitors inside.

Judging from the dogged faces of shoppers waiting in lines for rice and chili in bulk, none is too concerned that the ground on which they stand has been steeped in a Tapatio insurgent’s blood, swept by a mysterious epidemic, and held the ashes of its thrice-razed market predecessors. They are, instead, picking through bruised mangoes, resting on stools to munch on freshly fried tacos dorados, and gulping down aguas frescas of mango and plum.

The Mercado Corona is ripe for exploring: it’s a less daunting version, with more specialized products, of the Mercado Libertad or the Mercado Abastos. The focus is food. Some cheap clothes, jeans and hair products are for sale, but the Sunday Santa Teresita open-air tianguis might be more suited for browsing those items.

The historic indoor market covers two floors and one city block. Fresh bread – bolillos, pan dulce, and wrapped cookies – is the main spread found along the building’s perimeter, as well as honey sold in plastic jars.

Here on the edge, fruit is also sold, but better prices are found elsewhere. Vendors benignly hound customers with calls of “Que te doy?” and “Que ocupas?” as they make their way indoors.

Inside, a thousand scents converge at once: sour, salty cotija cheese, tongue and pork sides grilling on open comales, bitter dried herbs hanging from nails and sugar-sweet pineapples dripping from their bases.

In spite of considerable chaos around lunchtime when hungry passersby swarm the small indoor restaurants, the Mercado Corona enjoys a consistent peace compared to its existence in previous centuries.

The market, named after the assassinated general Ramon Corona, was patriotically inaugurated on September 15, 1891, only to be burned to the ground in 1910 by revolutionary fires.

After two more reconstructions and two more deadly conflagrations, it occurred to city officials to rebuild with cement, and since 1962, has stoically sat in its current flameproof state.

The original grounds, long before a market was ever conceived, belonged in the mid-1500s to the bishop Cipriano de Nava, who lived in an old house on the land. In 1573 he founded a school for girls called Santa Catalina de Siena, which was converted a few years later to a convent. Years later, the ayuntamiento bought up the estate and there built the Hospital San Miguel.

A strange, unidentified epidemic hit the city just after the turn of the 18th century, and the hospital, filled to capacity with sick patients, needed help. At the same time, a religious order called the Bethlehemites were seeking asylum, and thus commanded care at the forsaken hospital, appropriating the facilities after the epidemic dissipated. A more modern hospital was built elsewhere in the late 1700s and San Miguel was officially abandoned.

The site’s incarnation as a market began in the early 1800s, as a haphazard tianguis began to spring up in the area. Guadalajara’s ayuntamiento decided to build an official market designed in a popular French style, gaining profit by charging vendors taxes.

It was on that very stage where Jose Antonio Torres, the illustrious Mexican insurgent who fought Spanish royalist troops until his capture in 1812, was executed. The particular method was a testament to his crimes against the Spanish state: the Independence hero was hanged, dismembered (each limb carried to a different town), and decapitated, after which officials displayed his head for 40 days. Once Mexico gained independence from Spain, the market was appropriately named “Mercado Independencia.”

Today the only blood shed on the grounds belongs to slaughtered livestock, splayed and pared on cutting blocks behind glass shields. But the spot’s tumultuous story will remain a legacy to a righteous figure in Mexico’s history.

At the heart of the covered building on the first floor, several competing women with giant covered baskets, elevated by stools and crates, broadcast their product with earsplitting repetitions of “Cinco por diez pesos! Acaban de salir! Calientitos! Cinco por diez pesos! Acaban de salir!” The women, selling much loved tacos de canasta with potato, bean, and pork fillings, dish out the soft tacos onto plastic plates which customers douse with thick sauces, shredded cabbage, and pickled nopal and carrots.

Wandering up the sloped walkway to the second floor, visitors pass stands selling baskets of all shapes and small tokens given out at baptisms, weddings and anniversary parties.

Upstairs is an herbarium of sorts, stands and walls piled high with dried plants used as remedies for various ailments. Among them are flor de manita (calms the nerves), cola de caballo (good for arthritis and osteoporosis), and an ostensibly cure-all mix called el boldo consisting of chopped barks and grass, boiled into a bitter tea (aids digestion). Thick, arm-length cactus stems, de-thorned and stacked like bones, are said to benefit patients suffering from cancer.

It is also upstairs where prayer candles and assorted “curative” soaps and oils are found.

For those seeking the best prices for fruits, vegetables and any dried fare – rice, beans, chilis, jamaica flowers, peanuts, and sugar – the streets surrounding the indoor market hold the most promise.

On Calle Zaragoza between Independencia and Juan Manuel one can buy fresh local fruit by the kilo at open-front stores where staff hand-fill orders one at a time. One shop in particular, situated in the middle of the block, is always packed with customers and has the best prices, hands-down. Following the taco stand rule, it’s hard to go wrong: the more customers, the more turnover, guarantees fresher product.

The Mercado Corona is open daily from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Most buyers frequent the stands around lunchtime (early afternoon). To avoid crowds and sun, arrive in the morning after produce is delivered; come with a large shopping bag and an empty stomach.