Archive | October, 2016

Prayer Parties! Inducing Yawns since Colonial Times

25 Oct

Thanks to the extreme lack of stimulation that going to church brought about for me as a child, I learned that yawns were caused not just from sleepiness, but also from boredom. I hadn’t even realized I was bored per se, but I remember asking my mom why church always made me yawn when I swore I wasn’t tired. Bless my little heart; I was just not cut out for Catholicism.

I still feel the same irresistible urge to yawn when faced with participating in the rhythmic ritual of Catholic prayer. This is now a rare occurrence, since I don’t attend mass if I can possibly avoid it. Here in Mexico, however, the unique Mexican brand of Catholicism is so deeply entrenched into social life that I occasionally find myself obligated to attend a prayer party. The one at my neighbor’s house last weekend was so- ahem- relaxing that I went beyond yawning; I was semi-entranced, nearly asleep in my chair at 8pm.

I know, you’re thinking that a prayer party surely should be more exciting than church. To clarify, it’s not a party like a fiesta, in the grand style of Mexican parties where you save up money for ten years and invite everyone you’ve ever met. Perhaps “party” is a poor translation on my part, but there’s just no equivalent in my culture for this sort of phenomenon. It’s absolutely part of what makes Mexico so special. Where else can you turn prayer into an important social and cultural event? In Spanish, in Mexico, the event is called a rezo, and it literally just means a prayer. It comes from the verb rezar, to pray. So we could call it a prayer…. circle, theoretically, but that doesn’t fit, either. A prayer hang-out session? I don’t know. Let me tell you about it instead, and maybe you can help me give it a more apt name in English.

As far as I can tell in my 4 years of sociological investigation here, there are two main types of rezos. One type is part of the obligatory action that happens when someone dies. (which I mention in this big rant of a blog post about a string of bad luck). This is tradition, first and foremost, and legitimized as THE way to properly honor the dead. I can certainly respect that. Also, I suspect that it forces the grieving parties to continue to function and to have a social and religious backdrop for their grief. It seemed a bit appalling to me at first, to make recently bereaved folks cook for others, invite people to their homes, and serve them food and drink. I theorized that maybe they set it up like that so folks would be too busy working to fall apart entirely? Maybe that’s the only way to ensure that plenty of people will go visit with the grieving- create this custom of 9 evenings of prayers and food? I don’t really get my own country’s culture on this issue, either, so I am certainly not one to judge here.

Whatever the case, the prayers-for-the-dead rezos are not something I would ever scoff at, and I’m excluding that type of rezos from my intense sociological scrutiny in today’s blog (haha). The other type of rezo, however, is kind of beyond me. It’s a little prayer party- a party like the way we say it in the States- a gathering, a get-together,that takes place at someone’s house with a bunch of invited guests.  However, there’s no catching up, no card playing. The music is abysmal (because there is no music, unless you count the sad singing/chanting business.) Not a bit of dancing. The conversation is pretty much limited to basic, boring small talk, if there’s any talk at all.  And there’s no alcohol involved, unless it’s the last night of a funeral-based prayer session. But there’s food! Free food! And coffee or juice!

The food is not usually that great, for the record. I’m an expert on this because my mother-in-law went to rezos weekly in Juquila when we lived there, and she’d always bring the food home instead of eating it there (another weird Juquila custom). So I know all about what food is given. Something big like pozole or tamales is awesome. Often it’s something simpler, like a piece of sweet bread or (gag) some gelatin (this is another cultural puzzle for me, this love for and creativity with gelatin). Granted, I appreciate the gelatin-givers, because I’m sure if I were religious and inspired enough for this sort of party, I’d be giving out something equally low-maintenance. All in all, though, the food in itself is not sufficient motivation to get me to a prayer party.

Even when they happen outside, somehow the atmosphere becomes dim, perfect for a nap. People set up chairs in rows facing an altar, with candles, incense, and religious images- especially the particular Saint or Virgin that they’re praying to (yes, there’s only one famous Virgin in the Catholic faith, but there are different versions of her- the Virgin of Guadalupe, the Virgin of Juquila, etc.). Folks come, sit down quietly, and pray this advanced, fancy version of the rosary all together in unison. There are readings from the Bible that correspond with it. When it’s over, the guests get a plate of food and a drink of something handed to them, and they either eat it there or leave with it.

Above: A guide to the rosary- this explains why they say “second mystery, third mystery,” etc. Thank you, Google, for giving me more information. 

These prayer parties are fairly commonplace, too; it’s not like only fanatics have rezos. Tons of people have them. Totally reasonable, lovely people. For example, every year Arturo and Paulina have a rezo for Saint Jude. Before any big neighborhood parties happen in Juquila, people pass around statues of the saint in question and take turns having rezos for him or her. Our favorite neighbors here- the ones across the street- just invited us to their special rezo– the same one we attended last year. I don’t even know what saint I was supposed to be praying over, but I figured since it was our neighbors and they were kind enough to invite us we could go and show our respects. These people are not crazy, by any stretch. This is just what many people do.

The first rezo I went to was one with Conan’s grown-up niece Lili (whom I love and adore), when I lived in Juquila. I successfully avoided the prayer party excitement for the better part of my year there, until Lili made me attend. For some reason, Lili had felt herself obligated to commit to paying for part of a really big rezo, so she asked me to go and support her. We walked through town setting off fireworks all along the path (so Juquila-style). Lucia was right at that age when she was just walking and refusing to be still, ever, so I spent the whole time chasing her around someone’s yard instead of praying (and let me tell you how grateful I was about it). I let my curiosity die down about it from there.

I was talking to my mother-in-law about it again, as she prepares to go to her and Arturo’s yearly rezo. She explained to me quite a bit more about the “mysteries” that they talk about during the prayer- because I’ve yet to understand how/why different people volunteer to read the first, or second, or third “mystery.” “Just what are these ‘mysteries’?” I asked her. She explained that it’s all about praying the rosary in honor of a saint (or a recently deceased person). The mysteries correspond with the Hail Marys and the Our Fathers on the Rosary, and…. that’s about as far as I got in my Catholicism class before one of my children faithfully distracted me.

Of course, the most interesting part of our discussion involved the origins of this ritual. Paulina was telling me that this is how they do it because this is how the Spanish supposedly taught the indigenous folks to pray the rosary. “Aha!” I said, “That’s why giving out food is obligatory. That was probably one of the strategies the Spanish used to lure indigenous folks to their religion.”  And that was all the progress that I made in my intense sociological scrutiny.

Paulina explained that people do it for what she laughingly named the “celestial benefits,” which I suppose I could theoretically understand. Seeing as how I’m not religious and also not Mexican, though, I’m still slightly baffled about why people feel compelled to host these events. I mean, I’m a really big fan of certain saints, despite disavowing Catholicism for myself. But it would never, ever occur to me to invite people over to honor that saint. And okay, I know I’ve been known to have parties partly just to motivate myself to clean the whole house, so I guess the saint motive is loftier than mine. And sure, I cook food for folks at my get-togethers, but then we all enjoy it together; people don’t leave with their untouched food in hand. I guess their party is just holier than mine (hehehe). It’s one of these cultural mysteries that I can respect- because it’s culture- but I cannot really comprehend it.

Meanwhile, I’m still yawning over Catholic prayer- whether it’s in party form or not. And pondering a better translation than “prayer party”- so share your stroke of brilliance if you have one! Love you, dear, colorful Mexico.

Everything Tastes Better a la Mexicana

14 Oct

Since I can’t be physically present for the potluck to benefit our family’s return to the US, and perhaps neither can you, I wanted to share some more recipes. Because food is love, people. Sometimes.

I really wanted to give you guys the recipe for flying ant (chicatana) salsa, but unfortunately, unless you live in this area, you are not going to be able to get the ingredients. Chicatanas are large, flying ants that only come out occasionally during the rainy season- which is drawing to a close here now. Chicatanas are so much better than, and not to be confused with, chapulines. My friend Corrina refers to chapulines as “the spicy crickets” that she was “burping up for days.” (I did finally try the “spicy crickets,” which are actually grasshoppers, last year, because my friend swore they were the good, fresh ones. They were okay. Nothing half as good as chicatanas.)

Don’t get chicatanas confused with chapulines, the “spicy crickets”- okay, they’re more like grasshoppers really. Here are chapulines:

Chicatanas appear before dawn with the first big rain of the rainy season (in May), and they are quite a sight to behold. There seem to be hundreds of them swarming around the light post. This year was the first year we’ve seen them come out at our house- because it’s the first year there’s been electricity to attract them to my street. (Woo hoo!) (Yes, I was up as usual before dawn, but I didn’t think to snap a picture.) Everyone runs out to catch as many as they can when chicatanas come out. They are ridiculously easy to catch, but because they only come out of hiding one or two days a year they are very expensive to buy. If you ever happen to be in Oaxaca for rainy season, this is a fabulous food experience.

What chicatanas look like- below- still with wings, and wingless after a quick roasting.


Paulina, my mother-in-law, makes a to-die-for chicatana salsa, but without the main ingredient it’s pretty useless to give you the recipe. Instead, I want to tell you about the easiest trick for Mexican cooking, that I’m pretty sure everyone can use. It’s called “a la Mexicana.” It’s based on the colors of the flag, conveniently correlated to colors of typical staple foods. You might not know the colors of the Mexican flag if you’re not Mexican, because folks only wave their flag around in your face here in the month of September (for Independence celebrations), not year-round like many countries. So I’ll just tell you- the flag colors are green, white, and red. And cooking a la Mexicana means cooking with green chile pepper (jalapeño or Serrano, depending on how spicy you want it), onion (and usually garlic) for the white tint, and of course a red tomato.

Side note: These are the only local tomatoes available. So you either buy semi-ripe Roma tomatoes that come from who-knows-where, or these. All local tomatoes look like this, except for some cherry-type tomatoes that are around part of the year.


photo from:




The Mexican flag outside of the airport in Mexico City


This is the most versatile and handiest thing ever for cooking. You’ve probably heard of huevos a la Mexicana (Mexican-style eggs). It’s the most common a la Mexicana recipe made in the US, and it’s delicious. It’s probably Conan’s favorite. But I love a la Mexicana cooking because I can use it for almost everything. Bored with your usual lentil recipe? Stir-fry your a la Mexicana ingredients in the bottom of the pot and then throw your lentils and water on top. Not sure what to do with those nopales (cactus) you were brave enough to buy? A la Mexicana! (Recipe is below, because I make it a little bit differently than the typical way.) You can make potatoes, beef, or a million other things in this style. Once you’ve tasted the flavor you have a good idea what else it can work with. It doesn’t work with everything, mind you. I can’t imagine beets a la Mexicana, for example. Maybe not broccoli, but certainly cauliflower. Try it and you’ll get a feel for it fast.



Dee endorses nopales. Okay, maybe not exactly. He did not hate them, at least. That’s close enough to winning over a picky eater.

Here are some nopales (aka cactus):


photo from this site:

Nopales a la Mexicana, Julia’s style

This is a fabulous side dish. It can be served warm, or you can vary it slightly for a salad. You can also make it a whole breakfast if you scramble some eggs in towards the end of cooking. Well, and you need corn tortillas to accompany it, of couse.


Nopales (around 6-9 whole fresh- not canned- nopales)

½ medium onion, diced

1 medium clove garlic, minced

2 small tomatoes, diced

1 chile or less-  remove seeds for less heat

Handful of cilantro, chopped



Cut the prickly bits off of the nopales. (Haha! if you lived down here you could buy them already prickly-free. I’m so lucky.) Then make a couple of vertical cuts in the nopal so that it cooks evenly (this is a trick given by my mother-in-law). Cook the nopales on a griddle, or use a sauté pan, without oil. Put however many will fit on your griddle over low-medium heat, for about 4 minutes on one side. Flip over and cook until brownish on both sides (another few minutes). Alternately, you can boil the nopales, but they have a very different texture when boiled; they’re juicier, but some people (like my husband) think it’s a slimy-ish juiciness. I like their flavor both ways, once again proving that I am more Mexican than my Mexican husband. Go figure.

Set cooked nopales aside. When cooled enough to not burn you, cut them into strips about an inch wide and 2 inches long.

Sauté the onion and chile for about 5 minutes. Add the garlic for another minute. Then add the tomato, nopales, and cilantro, and sauté on low-medium heat another 5 minutes, until tomatoes are pretty well cooked.

The end! It’s that easy.

To make it like a salad, cut the nopales into strips about an inch wide and two inches long, and boil for 30 minutes or so. Put in cold water to cool. When cooled and drained, add tomato, onion, cilantro, jalepeño, and radishes (optional)- all chopped/diced according to your salad-eating preferences. Mix with fresh lime juice and salt and ta-dah! A salad version.

Go to the this week’s benefit karaoke potluck extravaganza if you’re in the Louisville area this Sunday. Sing cheesy songs and eat some awesome food! And if you can’t make it, just make yourself something a la Mexicana. Buen provecho! Love, Julia

Joy to the World, the Semester Has Begun!

9 Oct

I was teaching about the difference between being boring and being bored the other day, and I posed a bunch of questions for the students to talk about with a partner, using other –ed vs. –ing adjectives. “Who is an exciting person that you know?” I asked them, along with, “Who do you know who is easily excited?” (Careful, Spanish speakers, excited isn’t excitado in most casesget your mind out of the gutter!)

Apparently these young folks don’t have enough excitement in their lives, though, because many of them seemed stumped about exciting and excited folks. I started telling them about my kids, and how everything excites them- airplanes, dump trucks, the moon, you name it. (Khalil gets up every morning, and points and shouts at everything he’s excited about until I name it. It’s the only reason I forgive him for cutting into my quiet/exercise time at 6AM.)

Finally one of my students said, “You, teacher! You are easily excited.” It wasn’t quite what I was looking for, but at least someone finally answered. And it’s true, I realized. I am so excited every day! I have way more fun at work than most people, I’m sure. Between my grown-up personality (which is somehow less jaded and more light-hearted than when I was younger- go figure), my kids’ contagious excitement, and loving my job, I am pretty damned excited about the universe.

I love my students. I love teaching. I love being able to use my Spanish language skills to instill my mad passion for language and communication and critical thinking into my students via their obligatory old English class. I love that I get to set an example of joy for lifelong learning with a whole bunch of helpless “victims” of my cause- 5 days a week, 4 times a day. I love my job!!! (Yes, I am using excessive exclamation marks, thank you very much, you punctuation snobs. I am expressing precisely how I feel, so there.)


This is totally what I probably look like in class, except with a bunch of grown-ups in a boring, all-gray classroom. photo from:

I’m starting my 3rd year with the curriculum that I helped invent, so I’m feeling extra confident- perhaps even just a tad cocky- about my ability to invent more and more fun and interesting ways to teach what I need to teach (on a good day, at least). On top of that, I’m a textbook extrovert who gets more energized and motivated after each class. And I have fabulous students this semester. “You say that every semester,” says one of my co-workers, jokingly scolding me.

We just finished up the two month-long introductory period for this year’s new students, and for that I lucked into really great groups again. “You say that about every group,” my co-worker said, rolling her eyes at me just a bit. Really, though, just about all the kids in their intro course are sweet and enthusiastic, so it’s easy to adore them. Even my three students who tested out of the course still wanted to participate- that’s the kind of innocence and awe these first-year students have at the very beginning.

My 12PM class of Biology students was really sharp, as the Bio students tend to be. But they were also really adorable. When they asked me if I was going to be their teacher for the fall semester I explained to them that I definitely would not be, because we rotate classes so that nobody has the same teacher two times in a row. I tried to explain why this policy is good for them: you get exposed to different accents, to different teaching styles, and if you dislike a teacher you don’t get stuck with them for a whole year. I refrained from telling them that the reverse applies for us; we don’t get stuck with a class we dislike for two semesters in a row. “But can’t we request you?” a couple of them asked hopefully. I wanted to tell them that it’s college, not Burger King, but nobody’s ever even heard of Burger King, so I shook my head sadly instead. Now every time they walk by my class, each one of them waves happily at me. “Teacher, we miss you!” they tell me (in Spanish) when I see them around campus. I’m enjoying it while it lasts.

My favorite thing in my 12pm introductory course, though, was my student with the disgruntled faces. While some students are always less-than-thrilled to be called on in class, this student was loathe to answer. She’d scrunch up her nose and make other disgusted faces every time I called on her for an answer or to read aloud. But I called on her anyway, sometimes saying all of the sentence aloud with her, one word at a time, pulling it out of her, pushing her along. But I forced her nicely, and I was constantly, jokingly reassuring her that soon she will love English. I noticed- and made sure to applaud her for it- that she was really good at reading comprehension, and better than everyone else at guessing the word’s meaning based on the context. I found out that she speaks Zapotec (one of the many indigenous languages around here), and publicly congratulated her on already being bilingual. By the end of the course she had changed her disgruntled faces to resolute faces, a sort of willingly-going-into-battle stance. And she joined the “Teacher, we miss you,” club. I absolutely called it a win.

My 6pm class was a tiny class of Forestry students. All 7 of them were kind and studious and interesting, as our Forestry students tend to be, in my humble opinion. My favorite class last year was also half-filled with Forestry students. Last year’s students- a level two group, no longer aiming to please the teacher- even came to a Friday evening class when the other half of their class was out on a field trip, just because I promised to make them popcorn to go with the educational video. I love my Forestry students- those guys and these new guys. (“You love all your classes,” I can hear my coworker saying with a jovial eye-roll.) Look at these Forestry students, though! In my introductory course, at the end of the final exam, each one of them came up and shook my hand as they turned in their exam. One of them, my little Guns n Roses-loving rocker, even hugged me. How adorable is that? Their little wanna-be-professional handshakes. Bless their little hearts. You know you’d love ‘em, too.

This semester- the start of the new school year- I have two first level classes. One of them is a group of Animal Science (Zootecnia) kids, known for their high energy and rebelliousness. If any of our students are coming to exams drunk or high (most of them definitely aren’t), it’s bound to be a Zootech student. My least favorite class at this university was a Zootech class with over half of them dutifully resolved not to learn anything, at whatever cost necessary. Their strongest tactic to evade new knowledge was to spend at least 20 minutes out of every 50 minute class outside. “Teacher, can I go to the bathroom?” was the only thing they mastered all semester. Some of them were still kind of fun when they were in class, though. The Zootech kids are their own little zoo.

My Zootech class this semester is ragingly high-energy, and blessedly enthusiastic about English. I’ve already had to remind them that all words are good to learn but not all words are good for English class. “Motherfucker,” for example, is great for Pulp Fiction auditions, or for your rock band, but not okay for our class. This 6pm class is full of jokers and inside jokes, after having completed two months of stressful introduction to the university together. I don’t get all their jokes- like the student they call Saul even though neither his first nor his middle name slightly resemble Saul. But I can certainly appreciate their enthusiasm. I love how I don’t have to tell them twice to get into groups or to practice talking about whatever we’re learning. Even my foursome who failed this level last year couldn’t resist asking “Have you ever…” questions the other day. So obviously, I love this class, too! (“See? You do say it about every class,” I can hear my coworker point out.)

Admittedly, I love my 10 o’clock nursing class, too, this semester. On the first day of class, when I had all of my classes make their own list of rules and suggestions for building a mutually respectful classroom, one of the kids in my ten o’clock class was already announcing dramatically, “Teacher, we love you!” How could you not love a class with students like that? More than half of my level one nurses are shy, according to my icebreaker/survey, but they’re comfortable enough with each other that they don’t need too much prompting to participate. One of them felt so comfortable that he wrote on his paper to me about himself, “Hello Teacher, I’m gay!” I was honored that he marked me a safe person for him to tell that to. (See? You love my classes, too.)

My level one students, who don’t know me yet, were surprised and impressed by my culinary knowledge, when I reported, for example, that my favorite Mexican food was “Chepil tamales with a salsa made of chile costeño.” (“Sí se la sabe,” said one student to another: “She knows her stuff.”)

In my level 2 classes, most of the students have been my students before and thus my reputation precedes me. I guess my credentials for Mexican slang knowledge and Spanish pronunciation still needed to be proven with a couple of my Level 2 nurses who hadn’t been my students before. “Teacher, how do you say refrigerator in Spanish?” one of my favorite students asked me in his impressive English, and I accidentally answered on autopilot before I realized his purpose- proving my pronunciation capabilities to another student. The new student was much more impressed by the slang I knew. “Teacher, do you know what pistear means?” I grin and nod, lifting up my fingers in the international sign of chugging an alcoholic beverage. I turn back to continue erasing the board, but I hear the same student saying, “See? She’s more Mexican than Gringa.” As if they expect us English teachers to somehow be living here in a vacuum, in which we don’t learn any slang or other relevant cultural things. Bless their little hearts.

Once I had a student tell me he was really disappointed that I could correctly pronounce the word for turkey (they don’t say pavo here- the word is guajalote, which sounds like wah-ha-loe-teh). While students partially appreciate my Spanish abilities in, say, their grammar explanations, I think they prefer to have some language points to feel superior about. I try to keep it in mind, although truthfully my spelling and vocabulary in Spanish is better than that of many of my students. (Because I studied my ass off in college, dear students, and because I love to read about like I love to teach.) But I digress.

So it’s true, I suppose. I do love all my students. I do think all my groups are fabulous in some way or another. I know, the two-month introductory period for new students, followed by the first week of the regular semester, is definitely the easiest part of the year. We’re all happy to be there and students aren’t yet overwhelmed.

But I’m pretty good at keeping up the mood when the going gets tough with my students. (How do you come to class so animada– excited, animated- every day?” my little newbie Biology students asked recently. Bless.) One of my challenges to myself that I started last year is to have more and more compassion for my students, and more and more respect for them, and for where they are in the learning process. Granted, I’m still the first teacher to ask folks to leave the room if they can’t stop disrupting other people. But I don’t hold it against them the next day, and I find things that I like about them anyway. In general I try to assume that students are doing the best that they can do, even if that’s not quite what I’d like them to be doing. I don’t know if that helps them much in the long run, but it definitely helps me to not be angry when, say, kids aren’t paying attention or haven’t done their work. It definitely helps me to be a happy teacher. I work with and know some pretty awesome teachers, and I definitely don’t think I’m a better teacher than other folks, by any means. (Besides, comparisons are odious.) But I get to do pretty much exactly what I want to do, the only standardized tests I have to give being the ones our team made, no excessive paperwork to fill out. I do think I’m enjoying my job more than most other folks. And I think that joy, like excitement, is often contagious. I don’t think that my students are going to switch from nursing to an English career, but if they can get through the semester and actually enjoy learning a thing or two, I’m calling it a win. And I’m publicly announcing that I love all my students! I love my job!!!!! (With plenty of exclamation marks, so there.)