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Friday, September 10, 2010

One Year!!

Lake Chapala at sunset.

Uncle John and I grabbing some lunch at the lakeside.

Uncle John and I on a somewhat cloudier day.

At the edge of a jetty. See how it almost looks like
Santa Barbara coastline in the background...almost?

Oh wow. A year has gone by so fast. I can't believe that it was last September 8th, 2009, that I hopped on a plane to Mexico not having the least idea of what to expect or what lay in store for me. Furthermore, I'm aware that I haven't posted since March, and a lot has transpired since then, so I'll try to fill you in a little bit.

I would definitely consider myself more Mexican by now. Yes, I have the advantage of it being in my blood, but also, I now have the cultural experiences and lifestyle to accompany it. For one, as I'm sitting here typing away, I'm listening to Mexican music and thoroughly enjoying it. Now before you get too excited thinking I'm listening to a cacophony of trumpets, accordions, classical guitars, crashing cymbals, and operatic vocalists—I'm not. I've been introduced to really good contemporary music that breaks with the aforementioned tradition.

Considering myself more Mexican would also have to be things like
coming to expect tortillas at almost every meal,
generally understanding people and being understood in (Spanish) conversations,
exceeding the passenger limit of almost every vehicle I enter,
finally liking micheladas (beer with mixed with lime, salt, and other flavorings served on ice),
expecting lime and chile to accompany just about every meal,
having danced "banda" and liked it somewhat,
watching soccer games and actually caring about the outcome,
buying reading material in Spanish,
and having come to know dozens and dozens of aunts, uncles, and cousins.

I haven't done as much traveling as I would have liked, but I have gotten around a little bit. The pictures at the top of the entry are of Lake Chapala—Mexico’s biggest lake. It's only an hour’s drive from my town of Zapotlanejo. It apparently used to be a lot bigger, and stretch to near where the Guadalajara airport is, but it has shrunk a lot and been polluted; but remains beautiful. Earlier this year, an uncle (on my mom’s side) had been living at a town along the lakeside, and I took advantage of his presence and got out of Zapo on weekends to spend some time near a big body of water. I don’t know what it is, but there’s just something about being near an entity that’s so much bigger than yourself, and of being reminded how small we are. It may not be the ocean, but there’s just something about being in the presence of a large body of water that’s calming and reassuring for me. After having spent essentially my whole life in Santa Barbara, on the coast, I feel at home near and around water. It’s a part of me—I need it, and I miss it.

Jack & James on the cover of Voces.

Inside photo from the mag.

A couple friends and I formed "Jack & James" earlier this year as well 'cause we all wanted to get together and play some rock. We have a number of covers that we play, as well as our own material—some songs in English, some in Spanish. We've played around Zapotlanejo quite a bit, and are starting to look for other bars and places to play. (In the course of writing this blog entry the singer called me and told me we are playing at a big, whole-town-attending-event tomorrow. Um, ok.) In other news, we'll be releasing a demo shorty. It's been fun and who knows where it'll go--but I'll be keeping you posted!

My classes have been going well. I'm still working at the same English school—in October I'll complete a year of working there! They're looking to make me a part-time supervisor next month also; and, with more money, unfortunately, comes more responsibility. As regards to teaching, I now feel like I have a good command of most of the subjects I give, whereas before I had more doubts. I still of much to learn about grammar and language, so as I continue to teach I also continue to learn. I also feel (and can observe) that I've started giving the classes better—I've seen the students make progress and it's been rewarding.

A year is a lot longer than some people imagined I'd be (survive) here. I'm not sure what I imagined...I didn't and still don't have any time frame for when or where the next step will be. But, right now, I'm enjoying it, and that's all that any of us can do—enjoy to the fullest where we are and the people that are in our lives right now, because before we know it, they or us move away, or someone passes away, and things will never be the same as they once were. All we can enjoy is right now—the people that we're with and what it is we're doing. At least, that's how I see it.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

United Languages: A Journey of Teaching and Learning

A picture of the front of United Languages. It is a house-converted-into-a-school, and there is a portable whiteboard on the lawn, probably from the class I just taught (sometimes we run out of space inside). More pictures of the school coming soon.

Ok. So, one of the major impediments to having enough time to write about life down here is due to my job. Since my last post, I’ve obtained a full-time teaching position at the private English school I work at.

It’s a private school, and it’s almost run more like a business in the sense of the structure of classes and a schedule. It’s not like a public school with lunch time, recess, and after-school programs. The school is set up so that students can reserve class or time in the computer lab in one-hour slots. The school is open in the morning from 7-11a.m., and re-opens in the afternoons, from 3-9p.m. Furthermore, it’s not like I’m working with the same group of students day-in and day-out. There are four levels of instruction (beginning, intermediate, intermediate-plus, and advanced); and so one day at one hour I might be teaching a group of students of a certain level, and the next day, a different group (and thus level) at the same hour.

All that to say, is that it can make the learning process a bit difficult because of the lack of continuity—i.e. not having the same students day-in and day-out, and progressing through the curriculum as a unit.

The student age can range from 8 years old to forty-something, with the average age-range being students in high school or a university. About half the students are required by their parents to come, and as a result, lack motivation to learn and apply themselves in class. The other half of the students more or less give a concerted effort to learning. But, having a mix of these students in just about every class can make the teaching aspect a little difficult—finding a interesting way to engage all students in the class, and have them learn something as well. But, this is the job of the teacher; and, on a personal note, I feel that overall, there has been more success than not.

I’m endeavoring to reach a level where I present the learning material in a plain, easily understandable yet engaging manner; to the point that I know if a student does not understand something, the fault won’t lie with me or with my instruction. I can’t say I feel this way presently, but it is my goal. (If we don’t have goals, we don’t have anything to work toward, right?) Furthermore, I know that this is not something I can learn overnight, but after much time, and many trials and errors. Some might say that such a teaching ability can never be completely obtained, and that a good teacher can ALWAYS be taught something new. I definitely agree.

This past Saturday, March 27th, was United Languages' first graduation ceremony that I’ve been a part of—they are held once every six months. So, it was rewarding to see these students pass on from the school after completing all of their courses; but also, to see that they have learned something, and that I might have been a part of that.

I’m sharing all these details with you about the school because it is a large part of my life down here, and it is what I came down here to do. I work six days and a minimum of 48 hours a week, and with such a busy week, my time to do other activities (e.g. writing) has been reduced.

As in this entry, the following entries will probably contain more day-to-day comings-and-goings—to try and better paint a picture of how a place and a people go about life as compared to what I was used to. Also, I really want to get more pictures up here…so you can see part of what I see!

I miss you all, and I hope all is well for you. Next post coming soon.

Thursday, March 18, 2010


Yeah, it has been a really long time since I posted. But don't fret. I'm staying up late tonight and getting less sleep for those of you who find my words amusing enough to keep coming back. (In other words, I'm going to work on the next blog entry). Pictures are on the way: of the school I work at, of the town, of my house, of funny things, etc. Ramblings including musings, happenings, comings-and-goings, adventures and more are all on their way as well.

It's just that stuff (things to write about) keeps piling up, and the feeling of starting to work on an entry is equivalent to feeling like I have to summit a mountain. But--little by little.

Something will be up in a few days. Bare with me people. Much love.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

January Part II: The Passing of the Torch

Ok, ok, so I said it would be “about a week or so” before I got my next post up. I lied. But at least it wasn’t as bad as before. So…I guess we can assume my lies are getting more accurate? (Oh yeah, today marks 5 months I've been living here.)

One of the holidays of the month of January (for all I know, being as uninformed about things as I am, it could have been the only one) is Dia de los Tres Reyes—Day of the Three Kings. It is the last of the “winter holidays,” and is held on the 6th of January each year—a celebration of the three kings/wise men encountering the baby Jesus. Gifts are sometimes exchanged, but the most prominent aspects of the holiday I noticed were the parties and the bread. “Bread?!?” you say? Let me explain.

The night of the 5th is when some people begin celebrating the holiday, with a grand dinner fiesta with family and friends. The Rosca de Reyes (Wreath of Kings) is a large, rectangular-shaped loaf of sweetbread; it is almost shaped like a frame. In other places it is more circular or oval. There are candied strips of lime, strawberry, and orange (three colors), along with a dusting of sugar on the crust. Here’s the surprise: inside the loaf there are three (sometimes up to five or more) little plastic infants, and if you encounter—hopefully not with your teeth, as did my dad—a little infant in the slice of Rosca you are served, you are supposed to do one of the following. 1) Buy or make tamales to be had a fiesta you are supposed to host on the 2nd of February, or 2) NOT have to buy the tamales that are to be had a fiesta on the 2nd of February. Numbers 1 and 2 are in conflict because I never seemed to get the same story out of any two people…

Delicious Rosca de Reyes

But, the day was bittersweet (not to be punny), because my last grandparent, mother of my dad, passed away on Dia de los Reyes. This immediately precipitated the coming of much family and friends into Zapotlanejo to pay their respects and attend the ceremonies. This wave of family came just after the last family visitors from the winter holidays were leaving—and so made 4 straight weeks of family time. Two days after my grandmother passed, all of my family who needed to travel here were already here, away from their jobs and other obligations, to attend and participate in the ceremonies.

Not just family came to Zapotlanejo to visit, but also a good amount of friends of the family. News of this kind spreads fast here. But what struck me was how united all of the family and friends were—the amount of solidarity that exists in a community like this, to be there for one another in a time of need or loss. The great amount of support was sincere and valued by myself and my family.

There were some cultural aspects worth noting as well. Two days after she passed and was flown in to Zapotlanejo, an all-night vigil of prayer velorio was held, in accordance with Catholic and Mexican cultural tradition (an open-casket was also an inseparable part of all the proceedings). The following day was the funeral, and as the coffin was slowly driven through the narrow, winding streets of this town, the crowd of attendees walked behind, singing, praying, talking, or keeping silent. We made our way all the way to the cemetery like this; I noticed that this procession created quite a bit of traffic, but as soon as the drivers caught sight of what was happening, they were patient, understanding, and respectful. At the cemetery, one of my uncles and his mariachi band played my grandmother’s favorite songs, as we talked, sang, wept, and reflected.

After the burial, a novenario followed for 9 straight days: every day from 8-8:30p.m., people (mostly family) would gather and pray the rosary. It is often viewed as assisting the deceased in their transition to the next life, and is often a very cathartic experience for the mourners. After, the attendees drank coffee and cinnamon tea while talking and reminiscing. As this nightly novenario was held partly in the house and partly just outside of it, I observed that passersby often took off their hats or crossed themselves as they passed out of respect, even if they didn’t know who the novenario was for.

As the intensity of seeing your forebear lowered into the earth sinks in, one is forced to confront the reality of death: that it will one day come to us all. And while that is a sad and sobering thought, it immediately gives us appreciation for the here and now: to be living and alive, and grateful of this beautiful glimpse of existence we are given. All this caused me acknowledge the fact that with the passing of my grandmother, so passes a mother a many. She was 100 years old, had given birth to 14 children, had been shot in the leg (in her house) during the Cristero War (click here for war history), and had survived long enough to earn the title of great-great-grandmother. I was her youngest grandson. So, now the torch is passed to my aunts and uncles—they now become the end of the line, the oldest living torchbearers; they become the grandmothers and great-grandfathers and so forth.

Teresa Davalos Arana viuda de Villavicencio, 7/23/1909 - 1/6/2010

So we look to our own lives, acknowledging the inevitable end on this planet that will come to us all, while at the same time realizing that the precious opportunity of this moment is to be enjoyed to its fullest. We raise our torches and continue our lineages and our lives—whether we acknowledge it or not—and lay the stones for those coming behind us to walk on.

Monday, January 25, 2010

January: Part I--Feliz Ano Nuevo!

The beginning of January marks four months now that I have been living here! Oh yeah, Happy New Year. But, before I get ahead of myself—December ended with a constant flow of celebrations and holiday cheer.

“Posadas” are any parties held during the month of December, in anticipation of Christmas. What makes any dinner gathering a “posada” are a few crucial elements: tamales, pozole (soup with meat and corn), alcohol, and singing. Singing you ask? Yes, well the tradition is to re-enact Mary and Joseph’s search for lodging the night before the birth of Jesus, and they do this by song. The party splits up into two halves and creates a physical distance between the two groups, either by going outside the front door, or on the street, or even a slightly lower part of the house or patio. The “outsider” group represents Joseph and Mary, and the “insider” group represents the inn or residents of the barn they are trying to stay at. The two sides sing to each other, taking turns singing their scripted lines, and then finally the outsiders are let in and the whole party reunites and sings together…And then continues eating and drinking together.

About now you’re wondering when I’m going to make a funny comment or something, in desperate attempts of keeping your attention. Well, as of yet, I’ve got nothing, so just keep reading.

A lot of family from the States flew in for the end-of-the-year festivities, and so it was good getting to see them, especially those that I haven’t seen in a long time. Some of them I didn’t even remember too well but it was good seeing them again, and reestablishing a relationship. However, I find I am constantly asking myself who is or isn’t family, if so, what that makes them to me, and how it is exactly we are connected. For example, with all the posadas and everything, on one instance I met the brother, wife, and kids of the spouse of my first cousin of one of my aunts. For all I know there might exist a title for that connection, but I sure don’t know it. Another time I met the youngest nephew (and his family) of one of my aunts, but on her husband’s side, and tried to figure out if that makes him anything to me. It is quite impressive how they keep track of relationships here, from the nucleus of one’s family—mom, dad, brothers and sisters—further out to spouses, children, brothers-and-sisters-in-law, grandparents, grandchildren, nieces and nephews, second cousins, and then again the spouses and children of these ever-expanding relationship networks. So you don’t date or marry a single person down here, but rather, their family network.

All that said, all the way from Labor Day back in September, all of the “American” holidays beginning with labor day have been “first-time” holidays outside of the country, and it has been a different experience for me, as I have mentioned before. I suppose the main “experience” of it is this: whereas in one country, everything shuts-down for a given special day (e.g. holiday), but the day passes like any other in a different country, without the slightest indication that it is a holiday for millions of others. I guess it has just been a lesson in cultural relativity, and emphasis of cultural traditions, because hey, after all, I am living in a different culture than the one I grew-up in.

Lastly, here are some “how-you-know-you-are-in-Mexico” moments:

-you need to drive at all speed bumps at a severe angle, otherwise the car will scrape not because it has been lowered or “tricked-out,” but because it has too many people in it.

-you have ceased to be surprised by scooters or motorcycles (made for 2 people, maybe) going by that are carrying 4 or 5 people—without helmets. Example: recent quote from a friend (translated), “Look at this guy—he’s leaving with the entire preschool on his scooter!”

-you have ceased to be awakened by the roosters next door which begin cock-a-doodle-dooing at 4a.m.

-everyone has (pay-as-you-go) cell phones down here, but no one ever has any “minutes” left on their balance, so they just wait around for each other to call.

-when you sleep, your dreams take place in Mexico. And are in Spanish.

I will probably have another post up on here in about a week or so (I’m telling the truth this time, I swear!); the material’s already written, I just don’t want to bombard you with too much writing in one entry. Hope all your holidays passed well, and we’ll talk soon.