Category Archives: Getting personal

Advice for a friend who is moving to Cuba

From an article I wrote for the college magazine - Click to read it.


I came up with the title to this blog post and it sounds pretty good, very authoritative, yet still personal. I would like to read this post very much. Unfortunately, I’m supposed to be writing it and I’m not getting very far.

First of all, I’m completely unqualified to be dishing out advice (not that that’s ever stopped anyone). I studied abroad in Habana, Cuba for precisely one semester in the spring of 2004, going with a group of about 25 students from my school, Lewis and Clark College, led by one of our professors, and we took classes and lived on the campus of the Instituto Superior del Arte. It was a short experience, but one that personally impacted me a lot.

That said, I feel like I was in Cuba so briefly and that I would need to be there for years and years to be worthy of saying a lot about it. Not to mention that there have been a few minor changes since I left – for instance, Fidel is no longer Comandante-in-chief. However, a good friend of mine is moving to Cuba in a less than a month, to attend medical school and I’d like to be able to offer her more than “!Que Tengas un Buen Viaje!” Well, Nora, this is all I have for you. Maybe some others out there can put in their two cents on the advice column.

At first, you won’t understand what’s going on because you don’t speak Cuban Spanish. Then you won’t get what’s going on because you just won’t.

Cuban Spanish is way different than the Mexican Spanish that we’re used to here on the west coast – different slang, different pronunciation (talk two times faster and drop half the letters in every word and you’ll be well on your way). Ultimately, it’s not just the Spanish though – it’s the entire world view and, indeed, the entire world around you and the rules that govern it that are different.

In Cuba, every day is the DMV.

Americans hate the DMV. You don’t get good customer service, it’s unclear what rules govern the place and you easily might spend an hour in line, just to reach a bitter mid-level bureaucrat who tells you you have the wrong paper and have to go stand in another line. Nothing makes sense. It doesn’t matter how much money or power you may have outside the DMV – they won’t help you once you pass through those doors.

Get zen.

Americans, and especially American Protestants (I would argue) have an incessant can-do attitude. Sure, we ask God for help, but we largely count on ourselves to do the work. We believe we can bend the world to our will and that all problems can ultimately be solved with enough hard work (or by thinking the right thoughts for all you New Age “The Secret” devotees). Maybe that is true in America, but Protestant Christianity is little comfort in a place like Cuba.

Catholics are a little better off – more primed to accept “the things we cannot change.” They have a million saints to pray to for relief, hopeful of a miracle, but are emotionally prepared for the worst. When I was in Cuba, I became convinced that the God I knew didn’t actually have any control over the island – that the orishas had control and they were completely capricious and unpredictable – like a bunch of two-year-olds.

Although santeria, with a dash of Catholicism, is the primary religion in Cuba, I would actually offer up Buddhism as the religion most suited to life there. Buddhism teaches that happiness depends on detaching yourself from all material wants – that’s a good attitude in a place that has trouble reliably getting vegetables from inland to the city and where various imported items might not be available for weeks on end and the phones and electric lights don’t always work. Whatever is getting your goat, the answer is: RADICAL ACCEPTANCE.

Lose yourself, but don’t lose yourself.

I went to Cuba when I was 21 years old. That’s a dangerous age – you’re half-baked at best, still impressionable and malleable. Life is just one big identity crisis. I’d like to go back to Cuba now that I’m at least a little more sure of myself, though I wonder if I’m already starting to shut myself off to life-shattering experiences.

Learning another language means learning another way of seeing the world. It changes your brain so that you learn to hold inside yourself two equal, but often contradictory truths at the same time. It can really mess you up at first, but I guess you get used to it. So lose yourself, but don’t lose yourself. That’s my double-truthed, contradictory advice for you, mi amiga. If it doesn’t make sense and you find yourself getting frustrated, please refer to points 1-3.

For more fun: This was an article I contributed to our college alumni magazine about our experiences in Cuba. Featuring a photo of me in a really large hat.


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Filed under Cuba, Getting personal

The last ten years of my life

Hanging out senior year at Sonoma Valley High School

I recently went to my high school’s ten year reunion. There is something decisive about a decade. I am no longer just a few years out of high school, no longer just a few years out of college and thirty is coming up fast. You can’t help but get to thinking, “What have I been doing with myself?” Or the more dangerous version that can easily devolve into self-loathing angst, “What have I accomplished in life?”

I blame Oprah. She always makes me feel not only like I could be doing better, but that, indeed, it’s 100 percent on me. I just need to think positive and put my mind to it! So far, I’ve decided to stop reading magazine features about the “Hot 30 under 30,” which seems to be helping.

With the reunion as a resounding reminder that the years really have marched by, I’m thinking back for the first time on the entire sweep of my life since high school.

I stopped keeping a diary in high school. I was wise enough at that age to look at the things I was writing down and to see that they would mortify me years down the road. Without a written record, it’s easier to pretend we were bigger people than we really were, that we didn’t spend hours mooning over some doofy little boy who didn’t even know we existed and wasn’t worth the pain anyway. There are some things worth forgetting.

Right now, I’m trying to remember what it was like to be eighteen. I have to remind myself how little I really knew back then. My world was very small – Portland seemed like a big, exotic city to my eighteen-year-old self. Among the things I was exposed to in that first year of college were: vegans, gay people, sushi, organic gardening, skinny-dipping, bone-dry cappuccinos, tofu, bluegrass music, pot, microbrewed beer, dumpster diving, Critical Mass, carbon emission credits, Islam, hookahs, and cross-country skiing. I also got my first email address. And that was just year one!

I loved those college years so much because, like high school, there were clear rules for success. I worked hard in my classes, studied, listened and asked questions and, in turn, I got good grades and honors on my thesis. However, the moment I graduated, the idea that life made sense and there is a clear formula for success, indeed a clear definition for success, was completely upended. I was thrown into a full-blown panic about what to do with my life. I would literally wake up at three in morning in sheer terror that if I didn’t do well at my current unpaid internship, I would undoubtedly fail in life and never get a fulfilling, paying job and, also, I would probably never find a boyfriend. I sent out resume after resume and penned a million cover letters. Everything I’d learned in 22 years didn’t count for much.

I don’t know what you could say I really learned in college. Really, the biggest decision I made was that I left home. That decision to leave my comfort zone was the one that made the difference. I would continue to make that same decision over and over again – when I studied in Cuba instead of Spain. When I left my job as a reporter to travel in New Zealand and then move to Mexico City. When I stopped writing for a living, the only work I’d ever known, and started renting warehouses to Mexican businessmen. When I followed love to move to yet another new city and start my life all over again, this time in Los Angeles, working for a state senator.

Living it up in high school yearbook class

But that’s just me being writerly and giving my life a logic, after the fact. At the time, I had some vague goals. I had some notions of where I wanted to go, and I considered myself ambitious, but those goals kept changing as I learned more and saw how the world around me was changing, which is why my 18-year-old self would probably be pretty disappointed in where I am now. In a quiz I filled out the summer after senior year, my answer to “What do you want to be when you grow up?” was “Really cool.” According to my younger brother, I’ll never achieve that one.

The goal that I have the hardest time letting go of, and haven’t really let go of, to be completely honest, was my high school dream of being an investigative reporter. I wanted to be Lois Lane, or better yet, Bob Woodward. I wanted to blow the top off this whole thing – to be the voice of the voiceless, to speak truth to power and wield my pen like the sword of justice. Instead, I watched the media industry implode and changed my goal from being a foreign correspondent for the New York Times to being “paid enough money to live.” There’s no quick way to describe the deep sense of loss, but also the blossoming of possibility I’ve felt observing and participating in the changes in the media  industry over the past decade. I still play tug-of-war in my mind over whether I wisely saw the writing on the wall and adapted to survive or gave up on my dream too soon. I usually placate myself by concluding that I may still be able to achieve this goal; it just won’t take the form I thought it would when I was 18.

So here I am at 28, taking stock of my life. I support myself entirely, working as a communications director for a non-profit. I live in a cute, little one-bedroom with a patio in Los Angeles and I have a car. I blog and take photos. I assist my boyfriend with his  special event photography and video business. I speak Spanish, another one of those goals I had as a teenager. I am still friends with lots of people that I’ve always been friends with and I’ve picked up some other cool people along the way. I don’t know if my 18-year-old self would meet me now and pronounce me “really cool” or be secretly disappointed. But my current 28-year-old self would say that life is pretty good, and that’s more than good enough for me. After all, I still have 12 years to make the “Hot 40 Under 40.”


A big special thank you to my friend, Lizzy Acker, who was my editor for this post. Can you believe that all this time I’ve just been posting things straight out of my head with no editor?!! Thank goodness for Lizzy, who is not only cool, but a bona fide published author!!


Filed under Getting personal, Sonoma

The new face of California

Sometimes I kind of forget how much I’ve changed and how much the world around me has changed. I spent my childhood in Sonoma – officially one of the whitest towns in California – and my college years in Portland – a town that, despite its professed love of diversity, has the same ethnic make-up of Salt Lake City. You don’t think about it so much when you’re a kid, but I got to thinking after reading this article from earlier this year: Sonoma Grows More Diverse.

This would be shocking to most Angelenos, but between the ages of 0-22, I only met and got to know three black people. Then again, my boyfriend, who grew up in LA, admitted to me that I’m the first white person he’s ever gotten to know very well. He whipped out his year book – there were literally no more than a dozen white people in the whole school.

So why am I getting so pensive about this? Actually, it’s because I found something funny and then started to wonder if my friends would think it was funny too. I was phone banking for LAUSD school board candidate Luis Sanchez and I picked up one of his flyers. I’ll let you take a look:

For how many years, have we all joked about how political campaigns are always ridiculous in their heavy-handed attempt at total diversity – there’s always a token black person, a token old person, a token Asian person, a token person in a wheel chair…Well, my friends, the day has arrived – we now have the token white person.

I’ll close this out with a quote from Glee’s Sue Sylvester: “I love minorities. In fact, I love them so much I’m thinking about moving to California so I can become one.”

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Filed under Getting personal, Los Angeles, politics


As a native Californian, I always considered myself not to have an accent. Southerners have accents. Bostonians have accents. British people have accents. Don’t even get me started on Indian people.
But me? No way.
After graduating from high school, I made the audacious move across state lines to Portland, Oregon. In terms of the culture shock scale, this hardly registered. Here’s a compare/contrast:

Sonoma/ Portland
Lots of liberal people /  Lots of liberal people
Beautiful wine country  / Beautiful wine country
Stunning coastline / Stunning coastline
Good food / Good food
Sunny / Cloudy
Good Mexican food / Only one good taqueria in the entire metro area

Portland was novel, but not exactly exotic. I considered myself in the same realm – not particularly exotic.
My first day on campus, I was talking to a couple of girls from two other states – the usual chitchat: Where are you from? What’s your dorm? What classes do you have? Pretty banal stuff.
While I was talking, the two of them were smiling and exchanging mildly bemused glances.
When I paused, one of them jumped in, “ Excuse me, where are you from?”
“Oooooooh! I thought you had an accent.”
Honestly, this was complete news to me. I found a fellow Californian and she confirmed – we did indeed have accents.
Suddenly all my verbal quirks were laid bare. Apparently, people in other states don’t generally say, “ I was like…what?!!” or recount dialogues from earlier in the day by saying, “So he was like, ‘What are you doing later?’ and I’m all, ‘Nothing. Why?’”
Apparently, they don’t say everything as if they were asking a question. And they don’t talk so quickly.
My inscrutable accent was confirmed by the ultimate arbiter: someone from another country in the process of learning English. My friend’s Brazilian “sister” came to visit and she rated all of us on intelligibility. #1 by a long shot was our friend from Ohio, proving that state’s superiority in…neutrality. Ohio is prime recruiting ground for bland national newscasters. Wyoming, New Mexico and Oregon were all passable. Dead last: me.
“Sometimes, I do not understand you,” she said in her adorable Portuguese-tinged accent.
After four years living with friends from all different states, I concluded the California accent was not only a habit I was unlikely to kick, but something that I could wear with pride. After all, California is, like, awesome?!
At the same time, I was trying to kick another accent – my American accent.

My fave song about being bilingual – con mis dos lenguas te voy a enamorar!!! Watch out…

Learning another language is always a comedy of errors, and my foibles in Cuba and Mexico were no exception to the rule. Some classmates along the line seemed to pick up the language effortlessly, others had been studying for years and were still painful to hear. I thought I was doing pretty well until I heard any recording of my voice.
After a year in Mexico, my friend, Diana, said to me, “Sierra, I am begging you to do me this favor. PLEASE change the message on your answering machine. It’s horrible!”
I had recorded it my first week living in Mexico, giving it a couple of tries, then just simply giving up. As she pointed out, she was the one who had to endure my mangled Spanish every time she called me. We recorded a new one – the crowning achievement of my progression in the Spanish language.
There are other indications of my progression – as well as the limits of my fluidity.
At a recent quinceanera, the priest battled through the entire mass in his leaden book Spanish, with that American twang. Afterwards, I asked my boyfriend if I sounded like that sometimes. He told me I didn’t sound that bad – then again, he has a vested interest in not pissing me off.
Perhaps the best compliment I’ve gotten was from a Spaniard who called a wrong number. A guy called our house in Portland speaking Spanish so my roommate passed it over to me. Confusion ensued. After 10 minutes of back and forth, we were able to establish that this guy did indeed have the number correct, but the former girlfriend he was trying to reach no longer lived there and I didn’t have any idea where she might be.
“You speak Spanish very well,” he lisped. “I cannot tell where you are from – Eres Latina?”
By this he meant someone with Spanish-speaking parents who grew up in the US.
You know what? I’ll take it.


Filed under Getting personal, I heart Cali, Los Angeles, Mexico

I have a culture!

Voila! Catherine reveals the perfectly roasted turkey at "American Thanksgiving in Mexico" - no small feat!

Voila! Catherine reveals the perfectly roasted turkey at "American Thanksgiving in Mexico" - no small feat!

I grew up in an America where it was cool to be ethnic. College was one long succession of cultural appreciation events from Passover to Kwanzaa to the annual luau. Everybody got a chance to share their beautiful traditions and it was great – something to celebrate every week.

I remember in 5th grade when we spent months learning about Ellis Island and how people immigrated to America, bringing their traditions with them. What could be cooler than being a hyphenated American? Two cultures is better than one, no?

The thing is, I’m just plain American. I’m not African-American, Mexican-American, Italian-American or Native American. I figured I was probably descended from all those Ellis Island folks, a European mutt like most of my friends, but while home on vacation, I picked up a copy of my dad’s family history and the myth was shattered. Apparently some distant aunt got a bee in her bonnet about joining the Daughters of the American Revolution and she’d done it – she’d proven that we had at least one relative who was here before our country was even a country and who fought to make it one. I’ve heard about east coasters that are very name-centric and who are all about how they were descended from the Mayflower (don’t ask me how that comes up in casual conversation), but I’m a west coaster. Somehow, finding out how deep my roots go on this continent actually made me feel like less of an American than the newcomers who had to risk life and limb to get here, learn English and actually pass the citizenship exam.

A traditional American breakfast: biscuits and gravy. Mmmmmm... (Sidenote: In Cuba, the culinary academy's main courses were "Comida Criolla (Traditional Cuban cuisine)" and... "Desayuno Americano (American breakfast)"

A traditional American breakfast: biscuits and gravy. Mmmmmm... (Sidenote: In Cuba, the culinary academy's main courses were "Comida Criolla (Traditional Cuban cuisine)" and... "Desayuno Americano (American breakfast)"

Somehow, I felt like I didn’t have any culture. It’s not like you can really own being the mainstream. We celebrate Thanksgiving – booyah! We eat chocolate chip cookies and hamburgers! And we play volleyball!

Well, thanks to my travels abroad and my boyfriend (who has never celebrated Thanksgiving), I have realized I actually DO have a culture. He constantly points out to me weird things that I do. Now I can just tell him that they are cultural. Things like drinking tap water, going hiking and composting my kitchen scraps. And about 95% of the stuff on the Stuff White People Like Blog (My boyfriend likes about 40% of the things mentioned and perhaps 10% of the list elicited “Why would anyone ever do that?”).

These cultural differences were hit home by my inability to find certain foodstuffs at the supermarket by my house (El Super). It is an extremely Mexican market which is generally great since it has fresh-made tortillas, a huge produce section and outrageously low prices. However, sometimes you just have to go out of your way to get authentic products from the homeland. In my case, that special place is Ralph’s.

This is my shopping list:


Pumpkin pie filling

Brown sugar

Cream of tartar (for making the traditional snickerdoodle cookie)

Cranberry sauce


French bread or any other kind of fancy bread with lots of seeds

Goat cheese or bleu cheese




Asian sauces and sushi-making fixes

Rice for risotto

Fancy mushrooms

Pudding mix

Frozen pie crust

Lousiana hot sausage

Cajun spice mix


Canned clams

Worchestershire sauce (For making my favorite: Chex mix)

Graham crackers and normal-flavored marshmallows (For s’mores)

Balsamic vinegar

Sesame oil

Imported beer or microbrews

Perhaps my shopping list kind of borrows heavily from the cuisines of other world cultures, but what can I say? I’m American.

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Filed under Getting personal