Category Archives: Mexico

(Unas de) Mis Favoritas Peliculas en Espanol – Some of my Favorite Movies in Spanish

Bienvenidos a my first bilingual blog post (Spanglish more accurately). Antes de nada, perdoname – estoy bien floja y no voy a poner bien los acentos porque mi spellcheck no es biligue.

Hay muchas peliculas buenisimas de todos los paises de Latino America y para mi ha sido un gran placer conocer la gente y la tierra y la historia de los hispanohablantes por su cinema. Aqui comparto una peliculas que me encantan. Seguro que me faltan muchas! Favor de poner sus recomendaciones y comentarios abajor – gracias!

Yes, I have a minor in Latin American studies, listened to a lot of Manu Chao in college, studied in Cuba and now live here in LA where I go to an unusual number of Latin American film screenings with my USC alum cinephile boyfriend. You should be able to deduce all of that from this blog in general and, especially, this list of movies. I have undoubtedly left out some great ones – please put your recommendations and comments below!

Happy watching! Que las disfrutes….

Thrillers, intrigue and terror

  • Abre tus Ojos – The movie upon which Vanilla Sky was based. The original is quite wild so you can only imagine the state of my head several years later when there was Penelope Cruz speaking English giving me intense deja vu and Tom Cruise running around…?!?! Americans – you need to learn to deal with subtitles. Stick with the original.
  • El Secreto de Sus Ojos – Buenisima. Gano un Oscar! Ya…vete a verla!
  • The Devil’s Backbone – Guillermo Del Toro – te quiero mucho, especialmente despues de este evento. And yes, that is German in photo #3 getting a signature from his idol.
  • Pan’s Labyrinth – Mas Guillermo. Bien trippy.
  • Bajo la Sal – You like CSI? This is better.
  • El Traspatio – A nice transition to this next section since it is terrifying, but all too real – based on the countless murders of women in Ciudad Juarez.

Raise Your Social Consciousness

These are the movies where an audience member raises his or her hand and says: “Why doesn’t anyone show the positive side of our culture?” In fact, that happened at the Miss Bala panel at USC. The amazing lead actress said: “This is is real. This is how Mexico is right now.” Sooo….when you’re in the mood to be depressed but more enlightened…

  • El Norte – La primera pelicula en espanol que vi en toda mi vida. Mi maestro del sexto grado nos enseno la peliculas – tuvimos que tener permiso de nuestros padres. La recuerdo mas que cualquier otra cosa que paso en el sexto grado. Me di cuenta de que yo no sabia nada de las historias de los mexicanos que habian llegado a vivir en mi pueblo.
  • The Maid – So familiar. Chilean, but could be Mexican – so aptly captures a very particular dynamic in the homes of Latin America.
  • Sin Nombre – Did you know that thousands of Central Americans illegally cross the border into Mexico? And that terrible, terrible things befall them? A beautiful and heart-renching film.
  • Miss Bala – The Mexican Oscars are called the Ariels.
  • Maria Full of Grace – Columbian drug trafficking. Ya viste Traffic? Y Blow? Pues, mejor que veas esta pelicula.
  • Even the Rain – A recent episode of Bolivian history I didn’t know. You will notice that Gael Garcia Bernal films are all over this list. Well, he brings it – what can I say? This is just another great film with him!
  • A Day Without Mexicans – Humor is the best social commentary. If I had a book club, I would just have us watch stuff like this.

To warm the cockles of your heart

  • Viva Cuba – una historia increible de una amistad entre dos ninos que recorren toda Cuba
  • No Se Acepta Devoluciones (Instructions Not Included) – #1 best Spanglish jokes. A Mexican party boy suddenly finds himself a father of a half-American baby girl – trust me: You do not know where this movie will take you. You will laugh. You will cry. Me encanta esta pelicula porque trata del intercambio de cultura entre los estados unidos y Mexico y como poco a poco empezamos a entendernos (o no).
  • Bajo La Misma Luna – All of these movies have some element of immigration now that I think about it…
  • A Better Life – Te quiero Demian Bichir.
  • Real Women Have Curves – A great film with a great star (American Ferrera) based on a great play by Josefina Lopez – Angeleno friends, you should get over to the theater she founded – Casa 0101 and see her latest play – Trio Los Machos wherever you can…

High-brow and Indie-ness

Great news – there are some good movies with basically no dialogue!

  • Suite Habana – An ode to the city – con esta peli La Habana te va a robar el corazon
  • Soy Cuba – Sort of the same thing…except surreal and Soviet. No me crees? A ver…


Pura Diversion/Pure Pleasure

Guaranteed good time, nuff said.

  • Casi Divas
  • Saving Private Perez – 10x mas chistoso que “Casa de mi Padre”
  • Rudos y Cursi
  • Un Cuento Chino (Chinese Take-out)
  • Chico y Rita
  • Nosotros Los Nobles – El DF que yo conozco. Estaba muriendo de risa.

Un Toquecito de History

  • Arráncame La Vida
  • Cabeza de Vaca – Not fun per se…a bit like eating your vegetables, but more accurate that whatever Columbus films are around.
  • In the Time of the Butterflies – A powerful story of a family living under the dictatorship in the Dominican Republic
  • The Mission

?Como se dice “50 Shades of Gray?”
It’s cool how you’re pretending like you’ll see any of the high-quality films above, you sex-crazy people…Pues, ya vas con tus peliculas sexi y/o romanticas.

  • Like Water for Chocolate
  • Y Tu Mama Tambien
  • City of God
  • Mancora
  • Pedro Almodovar films – don’t necessarily belong in this section. Try one, if you like it, pues, you have many more to enjoy…


Filed under Cuba, Los Angeles, Mexico

Learning to Love the Subjunctive

Learning another language is less about acquisition than a long process of letting go. You think adjectives should go before the nouns they modify? Let it go. That grammatical rule seems illogical? You think irregular verbs should be outlawed? Let it go. Why are things that way? They just are. Let it go. Besides, the more Spanish I learned, the more logical it seemed and I pitied folks who were trying to learn English. English makes no sense whatsoever.

Most people fare pretty well through Spanish 1 and 2 – adjectives, present tense, past tense, commands, imperfect (which sounds baffling, but is actually one of the easiest tenses)…Then comes…THE SUBJUNCTIVE.

The subjunctive exists in English, but we could say it has atrophied from lack of use. What better example than Justin Bieber’s new song “If I was your boyfriend”? The grammatically correct phrase would be “If I were your boyfriend,” because the status of boyfriend is currently NOT locked down…it’s not out of question, but that it is currently contrary to fact that Bieber is this lady’s boyfriend…right now, the Biebs is in more of a hopeful, wishful state. That’s the subjunctive – a perfect blend of hopefulness, uncertainty and ambiguity.

As it turns out, English-speakers (and Americans especially) are not too big on ambiguity. For the past ten years, it has bothered me that Mexicans don’t have different words for cantaloupe, honeydew and crane melons. They’re all just…melón. Ditto with lemon vs. lime. This doesn’t bother Mexicans in the slightest however. So if my head explodes over that, you can imagine how well I took to the subjunctive. Americans also have some rude and demanding tendencies. Using the subjunctive will instantly make you more solicitous and humble. There is more than a linguistic gulf between the phrases: “I think she’s totally preggers” and “¿Podria ser que este embarazada?”

Americans are culturally averse to the subjunctive. Which is why I listened with such interest to this lecture “Can Diverse Societies Cohere?” Sociologist Richard Sennett argued that in order for very different people to get along and cooperate, three things need to happen. 1) Our conversations need to be less of a dialectical tug of war and more about listening to get at what people are REALLY saying behind the words they’re using. Basically the opposite of “Crossfire.” 2) We need more subjunctive in our lives. 3) We need less sympathy and more empathy. He has an interesting definition of empathy that is more akin to a caring curiosity for others, not pretending you get everything about them and where they’re coming from, but caring enough to wonder.

Why the prescription for more subjunctive? Because it’s gray and unclear, it leaves space. Let’s say you’re next to a stranger on the bus. If you say, “Look at that girl’s outfit. Teenagers these days. I think they need not only a little more clothing, but a little more God,” the conversation probably isn’t going to progress very far. You already stated your piece. If you instead opened with, “How about that outfit? Wonder what it could be that inspired that…” There’s space to converse. (Sorry for the poor example. That’s how little we use the subjunctive in English!)

For us Americans, the subjunctive is confusing and ambiguous. That’s exactly why we might possibly need a little more of it in our lives. ¿Podria ser?

Thoughts? C’mon friends – based on your recent rants on the Oxford comma, I’m pretty sure  that you all have strongly held opinions about my favorite (and almost everyone else’s least favorite) part of Spanish.


Filed under Mexico, Weirdness


I’m a lousy fan. I’ve always been completely baffled by the urge to take photos with famous people or ask them sign stuff. I’m a cheap skate so I’m unlikely to buy everything a musical artist has ever released, much less load up on merch. That said, there are some musicians that I truly love, whose songs I listen to over and over again. I’m starting to feel bad for being such a lackluster fan so I think it’s time I do what any good fan would do – start gushing.

My journeys in Latin America have not only exposed me to a ton of great food and super people – I also had the chance to listen to a ton of great music, much of which isn’t well-known among my people (AKA white American people). I think it’s time I start spreading the word.

I put together a playlist on Youtube for some passive listening – guaranteed to spice up your work day – and below are some notes about some of my favorite artists. I tried to pick one song for each, which was tough. If you like someone, go deep – all of these folks have tons of great music.

I’ve divided this into three sections. The first is music that, if it weren’t in Spanish, would be pretty similar to some of the great rock we have in English. This is an easy first step for gringos into a very deep pool. This is followed by musica tropical, which has a completely different flavor that is 100% Latin, but quite palatable to Americans. This is the stuff of salsa dance classes. This is followed by some extremely Mexican music that I now love, but that might take Americans a little while longer to learn to love…Enjoy!

Rock – Gateway Drugs

If you like rock in English, try rock en espanol! All these artists are so rocking, you either won’t care you don’t understand a word or you’ll be inspired to learn Spanish.

Sabanas Frias – Mana

I don’t care if they’re overplayed or too pop or they sold out or whatever else cool people complain about, I’ve loved Mana since the first time I heard any of their songs. I particularly love Sabanas Frias for the section where everything just breaks down into rhythm. I also never get tired of Oye mi Amor and Mariposa Traicionera…

A Dios Le Pido – Juanes

Juanes is a Colombian hit machine. I saw him in concert at the Auditorio Nacional in Mexico City – what a performer! Camisa Negra is probably his biggest hit, but I really like the words to this song, which is like a prayer:

Octavo Dia – Shakira

Pretend Waka Waka and She-Wolf never happened. I invite you to meet the Shakira I fell in love with in the early ‘90s. This video is conveniently subtitled so you can see the depth of the lyrics. Shakira in English will never equal the talent of her earlier music in Spanish.

Lamento Boliviano – Enanitos Verdes

The “green dwarves” are just simply a heck of a lot of fun and this song is a classic – “Here I am, drunk and crazy!”. If you like them, you’ll probably also dig los Hombres G.

Andar Conmigo – Julieta Venegas

Probably the best thing ever to come out of Tijuana. It was super tough picking a favorite song of hers – I also love Te Voy a Mostrar, El Presente, Limon y Sal and Eres Para Mi is super fun. If you like Julieta, you’ll also love…

Controlar – Ceci Bastida

Also from TJ, used to perform with Julieta and has a great, original style. Check out the full interview/performance with KCRW.

Eres – Cafe Tacuba

Another classic Mexican rock group, straight out of Mexico City. If you thought you’d gotten a grasp on this whole Spanish language thing, just watch Chilanga Banda and you’ll figure out pretty quick that Chilango is another language entirely.

Un, Dos, Tres, Go – Belanova

Yes, they’re muy pop, but they’re also super fun! And c’mon, Rosa Pastel has plenty of social commentary.

Frio – Ely Guerra

I’m probably not hip enough for Ely Guerra – she is just way too cool! Also, this song is ridiculously sexy, even beating Plastilina Mosh’s flirty Pervert Pop Song – “Punish me, I know I’ve been bad…”

Agua – Jarabe de Palo

This song makes me cry – in the middle of a Saturday afternoon, if I hear it before work, driving around town, whenever. It’s beautiful and has such heart-felt lyrics. Here’s a version that conveniently shows the translation:

El Matador – Los Fabulosos Cadillacs

These are guys are super fun. I think Calaveras y Diablitos is the best song ever for cruising around town – it makes life seem like an absurd adventure.

Me Gustas Tu – Manu Chao

I have a minor in Latin American studies. Therefore I am, of course, a fan of Manu Chao, the ultimate darling of left-learning college kids with a thing for Latin America. He’s a hippie-ish nomad who sings in Spanish, English and French. This is the best song ever for people learning Spanish.


First of all, I am not doing justice to la musica tropical here…Cuba alone could have its own category considering they invented salsa. If you love that Caribbean flavor, also try out some bachata and merengue from the Dominican Republic, cumbia from Colombia and maybe even some reggaeton (think Daddy Yankee “Gasolina”). You can find lots of great stuff listening to Batanga online radio: or by going to a Zumba class near you!

Los Infieles – Aventura

My love of Aventura started as a guilty pleasure, but now I’m ready to own it. These guys make me swoon with their bachata. And artist who is still in the guilty category? Pitbull (Please pronounce this PEET-BUHL), though he really hit it home with Bon Bon.

Quizas, Quizas, Quizas – Ibrahim Ferrer & Omara Portuondo

I could have picked basically any song by Buena Vista Social Club to stand in for beautiful classic Cuban music. This is a double whammy since it’s a fantastic song performed by two fantastic artists. These two are part of the BV Club, but please go deep and listen to everything else they’ve ever done, their talent and presence are phenomenal.

La Vida es un Carnaval – Celia Cruz

INDOMITABLE. “Ay, there’s no need to cry, because life is a carnival,/ It’s more beautiful to live singing./Oh, Ay, there’s no need to cry, For life is a carnival/ And your pains can be alleviated through song.” – They can, if you’re singing, Celia. Celia also does a cover of “I will survive” that is as good as, if not better than, the original:

Crossing over…

Bidi Bidi Bom – Selena

Que descanse en paz. If you’ve seen the movie starring Jennifer Lopez, then you know Tejano superstar Selena was murdered by a crazy fan at the tender age of 23, a huge tragedy. Selena was one of the first Mexican artists to “cross-over” with her huge hit “I Could Fall in Love,” which is still getting play on the light rock stations. American people, it’s time for you to cross over the other way and recognize the amazingness of Selena. I picked this song so you could see her perform live. I also love Amor Prohibido – if you find yourself selecting Como la Flor at the next karaoke night, your conversion to Selena fandom will be complete.

Muy Mexicano

Some of Mexico’s most beloved artists…

El Rey – Vicente Fernandez

It’s appropriate that Vicente Fernandez’s most famous song has the lyrics “And I’m still the king.” You really are, Vicente. This man is a classic of Mexican ranchera music. Even if you don’t speak Spanish, I think you’ll find it hard not to sing along to “Volver Volver,” which is played without fail at every fiesta precisely at the moment that everyone has had one shot of tequila too many.

Los Dos Plebes – Los Tigres del Norte

This band is BEYOND HUGE in Mexico, but might not be terribly palatable to the American ear…You know when you hear Mexican guys blasting polka music out of their trucks?…yeah, it’s that music. Just give it a chance folks…And be sure to see Bajo la Misma Luna (Under the Same Moon), a great movie featuring a cameo from these guys. Another fun song of their’s – La Puerta Negra.

Tu Carcel – Marco Antonio Solis

Tu Carcel was the song that made Marco Antonio famous – Si No Te Hubieras Ido might be the one to make him immortal. This Michoacano turns out hit after hit after hit – I love that he’s got a mix of slow and high-energy songs – un gran artista!

Paloma Negra – Lila Downs

Lila Downs is a contemporary artist that sings really old, really Mexican songs. Beautiful music and I love the Oaxacan influence – check out her stunning clothes in this clip. I also love that her dad is an English-Scottish guy from Minnesota. Viva la fusion!

Rata de Dos Patas – Paquita La Del Barrio

Your man cheated on you? Coming off a rough break-up? The prescription for that is Paquita La Del Barrio. About 90% of her songs are about how men are complete heels. To quote this one “Rat with two paws – yes, I’m talking to you…Are you hearing me, you useless man?! How much I hate and despise you!”

Viva LA!

Just a quick shout-out to a couple of Latin-flavored acts out of LA – one veteran, the other up and coming.

Nadas Por Free – Ozomatli

Viva el Espanglish! These guys are just super energetic, wacky performers and muy LA. I find it entertaining that they were hired by the US government to be cultural ambassadors to locales in Asia and the Middle East – way to represent!

La Santa Cecilia

I think you have to see them live to really get how great these folks are. They do awesome Spanish covers…they also do the old-school Mexican stuff and maybe a little klezmer. What’s not to love?


Filed under Cuba, DF AKA Mexico City, Los Angeles, Mexico

Mexico vs. USA: The Breakfast Showdown

If you’re from California, you probably grew up on Mexican food – tacos, burritos, carne asada. But how often did you hit up the chilaquiles, champurrado and conchas? Americans don’t usually eat Mexican food for breakfast (probably because it doesn’t come with margaritas). This is a big mistake because Mexican breakfast is DELICIOSO. I’m already hearing you: “But American breakfast is the best! It can’t be beat! It’s world-renowned!” That may be true, but let’s put it to the test. It is time for an official round of BREAKFAST vs. DESAYUNO.

Round 1: Baked goods

We may be off to a slow start here, folks. As we well know, baked goods are not a national strength for either of our two contenders today. US loses two points for plagiarism – pretty much all their baked goods were ripped off from Europe: croissants from France, strudel from Germany, donuts from…Dutch people? However, I’m hearing a counter- argument “Isn’t that the American way – taking the best every culture has to offer and making it our own?” The Dutch did this:

Americans somehow made it THIS:

Well-played, USA. Let’s turn our attention to the Mexican bakery. Two points for the interactive experience. Rather than pointing at things behind the counter, at the Mexican bakery, you grab a metal tray and tongs and grab everything that strikes your fancy and take it to the counter in the back. That’s great, but the selection is not…we’re getting a lot of booing from the Mexican fans, who are starting to chant: “Conchas, conchas, conchas…” The referee is conceding that conchas are pretty darn delicious, but everything else is pretty so-so…The Americans have brought up the Mexican chain: Los Bisquets Bisquets Obregon, pointing out that their “bisquets” are “weak sauce.”

Bisquets from Los Bisquets Bisquets

Referee has stated that the big, buttery, flaky traditional American biscuit is an estimated 10 times more delicious.

American biscuits

It’s not looking good for Mexico, but wait…what is this? It appears Mexico is bringing one last item to the table – is that a fresh CHURRO? Smothered in cinnamon and sugar?! Mexico appears to be breaking the churro in half…something is oozing out…that’s right, folks, the churro is filled with hot caramel sauce! This is going to be a tough round to call!

Churros filled with cajeta (caramel sauce)

Conclusion: Americans won’t get dinged on plagiarism since they took European baked goods to a new level – they get one point for sprinkle innovation and one point for baking powder biscuits. Mexico gets two points for interactivity, but loses two points on overall quality, regaining two points on the strength of churros alone. That’s right, folks – we have a draw.

USA: 2

Mexico: 2

Round 2: Beverages

The US opens the round by putting it all out there…and it appears that all they have is coffee and fresh-squeezed orange juice, not a strong start…Mexico points out that they actually get to keep coffee since they grew the beans. Excellent point. However, for being a coffee-producing country, they sure drink a lot of instant Nescafe – ouch! Then again, so does the American midwest….what’s that? Did I hear cafe de olla? One point for Mexico in coffee-brewing style points – brewing coffee in a mega pot with cinnamon and sugar was a brilliant idea. We’re getting some whispering from the Americans – one word, “Starbucks.” Well-played, USA! Two points for gourmet coffee chain domination! Mexico is taking the hit – they appear to be admitting they can’t deny their intense love of Starbucks.

Starbucks Coffee in San Miguel de Allende in central Mexico

Mexico appears to be reaching deep for this next hit…CHAMPURRADO!

The Americans tried to answer that with…

Swiss Miss Hot Chocolate Mix with Mini-Marshmallows

Are you kidding me, America? One point for marshmallow innovation, but Abuelita kills Swiss Miss any day, much less bona fide homemade champurrado!

Grandma is smiling because she knows she can kick that little Swiss girl's butt any day

America is faltering, but Mexico does not appear to be backing down. They’re going in for the lethal blow…Fresh-squeezed juices including el vampiro and jugo anti-gripal (anti-flu juice)!

Mexican Juice Stand

Jugo Vampiro/Vampire Juice: Mix of beet, celery, orange juice

Jugo Antigripal/Anti-flu juice: Mix of lime, orange, guava, pineapple and honey

That’s it, folks, America is down and doesn’t appear to be getting up!

Conclusion: US gets two points for Starbucks, Mexico racks up points with cafe de olla and champurrado, garnering two more points for their outrageous selection of fresh-squeezed juices, and they didn’t even have to pull licuados out of their sleeve!

US: 2

Mexico: 4

Round 3: Main dish

It has been a knock-down, drag-out fight so far. It’s a hard one to call at this point…Main dishes are America’s strength, but the Americans team admit they don’t really know what Mexicans eat for breakfast. Will their hubris and ignorance be their undoing?

America opens the round – they are holding up a picture of American folk hero, Paul Bunyan, and daring Mexico to come up with a breakfast big enough to feed him.

Paul Bunyan: American folk hero and big eater

An interesting approach – America could have come out on the quality of its offerings, but they appear to think they’ll dominate based on serving size alone. Those ARE some pretty huge flapjacks!

Obesity epidemic? What obesity epidemic?

Average American Breakfast

The Mexican team looks slightly shocked, and possibly a bit disgusted…but they are quickly regrouping…Their answer – that staple of American breakfast menus everywhere – Huevos Rancheros!

Huevos Rancheros

It looks like it’s coming to blows…America answers with: Biscuits and gravy!

Biscuits and gravy

Mexico: Chilaquiles!

Chilaquiles: Fried tortilla dunked in red or green sauce, with eggs or chicken on top, plus sour cream and cheese

America: Pancakes with real maple syrup!

Pancakes/Flapjacks, known in Mexico as: "Panqueques"

Mexico: Tamales!

Tamales...for breakfast?!! Simon!

The American team has a question for the judge – it appears they did not know you can eat tamales for breakfast in Mexico…that threw them for a loop…We didn’t catch their other question, but they seem to have regrouped and have a response…Denny’s Grand Slam!

Denny's Grand Slam

A new tactic – we thought they might present egg dishes and bacon separately, but they seem to be trying to overwhelm Mexico with the ultimate breakfast combo, at prices that can’t be beat…

Mexico: Machaca con huevos!

machaca con huevos y frijoles refritos

The Americans look really confused – they clearly did not fully investigate their competition – one of the Americans appears to be looking up machaca on his cell phone. For our viewers, machaca is dried beef, which may sound a bit peculiar, but we can confirm that it is indeed delicious. How will the Americans answer that one?

America: Breakfast burrito!

The Breakfast burrito: Origins unclear, Genius unquestioned

Wait a second! Are the Americans attempting to claim the breakfast burrito? Is that not Mexican food? We have a debate starting to emerge…The referee is asking for clarification about what exactly the Americans are talking about…it appears their point of reference is the Jack in the Box breakfast burrito, made with sausage, American cheese and hash browns. The Mexicans have confirmed that they disown that concoction. They are smiling and laughing – they clearly don’t think they need this one in order to win…The Americans are retracting the breakfast burrito and substituting the: Egg McMuffin!

Egg McMuffin

Mexico answers with: Huevos a la Mexicana with a side of chorizo!

Mexican-style egg scramble with tomato, onion and jalapeno

Mexico seems to be running out of options…their team is discussing some regional specialities for its next move…The Americans are clearly seeing an opportunity to secure their domination here, they are conferring with the ref….they are stepping out with:


Brunch: You cannot resist its charms

The audience is confused…Many Mexicans do not appear to be familiar with brunch…we have a debate between the judges about whether brunch is an off-shoot of breakfast or another meal entirely. The Americans are being asked to clarify what they mean by brunch. They have put up a definition on the main screen:

Brunch = all-you-can-eat buffet of traditional American breakfast foods + seafood buffet with crab and shrimp cocktails + eggs benedict + quiche + Bagels and creamcheese with lox + baked goods + mimosas + Bloody Marys

WOW! America is throwing down! But it’s not clear if this is entirely legal…folks, we can’t call it – it is going to a vote of the people – Post your votes in the comments section below or on my Facebook wall. Who will prevail?!!

Don't let those alcoholic breakfast beverages addle your mind!


Filed under California, Food, Mexico, Uncategorized

Please stop making 4th graders build models of the California missions

If you attended fourth grade in the state of California, chances are good that you built a model of one of the 21 Spanish missions stretching from San Diego to Sonoma. Chances are also good that you remember almost nothing important about the missions’ critical role in California history nor the painful and fascinating story they tell.

San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo
Model of San Carlos Borromeo, posted by dlofink on Flickr – See the full gallery of his students’ models. Please note that even if this post calls for eliminating the mission model project, these models are still pretty awesome.

Knowing how the missions were built is, indeed, the least interesting thing about them – who build them and why is the story that is really worth learning. For example, when I was a docent at the San Francisco de Solano Mission in my hometown, Sonoma, I could have casually mentioned that the original chapel stood on western side of the four-sided complex. The more interesting tidbit that it was burned down by Native Americans revolting against Father Altimira’s tyrannical rule (yes, the man for whom one of Sonoma’s middle schools is named). My favorite thing about history is that it’s surprising – shocking even. You would think that historians would really have this pinned down by now, that we would know definitively everything that every happened and why. The reality is that the past is as expansive as the future. If you ask the question: “What really happened?” you can spend a lifetime chasing the answer.

I love California history because it is practically a telenovela – full of unexpected twists and turns and lots of crazy characters. To that end, I’d like to take all of you back to fourth grade and share some of the things you should have learned when you were instead gluing together sugar cubes and spray-painting macaroni. (If you were wondering what you were supposed to learn, please refer to History and Social Science Standard 4.2 on Page 13. Note that “Students must be able to build a scale model of a mission” is not indeed a standard. If anyone has insight into the origins of this tradition, please let me know!)

California was not empty.
It’s hard to say exactly, but there it has been estimated there were more than 200,000 Native Americans speaking more than 100 languages living in California when colonizers started showing up. You think our state is diverse today?!
Back then, everyone wanted a piece of California. The first explorers to land in California hailed from various world powers – England, Spain, Russia…Those countries’ rulers were doing anything they could to get a foothold and get control of California’s abundant resources. Spain’s approach was to found missions, with military outposts alongside them, which were supposed to become fully functioning towns.

The mission fathers were benevolent AND cruel.
It’s hard to make a broad generalization about an entire group of people. First and foremost, remember that these priests were political operatives, tasked with turning Native Americans into Spanish-speaking, Catholic citizens of the crown. They grew so powerful that the Spanish crown eventually expelled all the Jesuits from the new world, secularizing the church’s assets.
That said, they were on the front lines and anyone well knows that things look different from the frontier than they do from headquarters. I won’t discount the good works that individual priests did in their mission communities or the advocacy of those like Spanish priest Bartolome de las Casas, who was one of the few people at the time who chronicled and protested the mistreatment of Native Americans. But the priests were also spreading and perpetuating a system that did tremendous harm to California native peoples and that, too, cannot be discounted.

The Native Americans got the raw end of pretty much every deal.
If you think that slaves in the south liked having a master, then maybe you also like to imagine that the missions were happy-go-lucky places and the Native Americans were always thrilled to be there. The treatment of Native Americans is one element of mission history that is probably most disputed and I would encourage you to read different perspectives, but if the only one you’ve heard is “Spanish priests were doing God’s work to save the souls of the Natives and give them food and shelter,” please dig deeper.
Yes, many Native Americans signed up at the missions by choice. However, once baptized, they did not have the choice of leaving and were forcefully kept there and even hunted down if they ran away.
There were a lot of different factors at play – this was a period of huge change. One factor that drove Native Americans into the mission system was that the Spanish introduced livestock to California, which had a huge impact on the environment that Native Americans relied upon for their traditional hunting and gathering. There was also the devastating impact of disease, made worse by the concentration of the population at the missions, which helped disease spread more quickly. The Native American population dropped by an estimated 90 percent during this period. Please try to imagine 90 percent of the people you know dying.
Apart from life under the mission system, the period that followed was possibly worse (refer to the novel, Ramona, which is California’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin). Once most Native Americans were fully dependent on the mission economies they had build up through their labor, the Mexican government decided to secularize the missions. There was talk of splitting the land among the neophytes, but ultimately most of it went to powerful and wealthy men and the Native Americans were thrown out with nothing and ended up having to work on the new ranchos.

If you thought the Spanish and Mexicans were bad…
The Americans soon proved to be just as bad, if not worse, in their treatment of the Native Americans. Spain at least had the stated goal of preparing Native Americans to be citizens with full rights. The United States had no such intention. With the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, ending the Mexican-American War, the United States took over many of the former mission properties, generally didn’t recognize the land titles held by Native Americans and put the reservation system in place.

This is far from a definitive account of the history of the California missions, but I hope it spurs you to visit a mission near you and find out more. And when your child’s fourth grade teacher demands you spend your weekend building a model of a mission, I suggest you take your cue from the mission Indians and revolt.


Filed under California history, I heart Cali, Los Angeles, Mexico

Jamie Oliver, would you mind popping over here?

The thing that I love most about Jamie Oliver is his relentless optimism. The man will not be daunted! Whether taking on the lunch ladies or the FDA or kids from the inner city, he will never sway from his fundamental conviction that it is possible for anyone to prepare healthy, fresh food from scratch.

Now, I agree with Jamie. I too am all about fresh, healthy, organic, locally-sourced food. I grew up in Sonoma, a bastion of back-to-the-land foodie culture if there ever was one, not to mention I put in several years in Portland surrounded by vegetarians, vegans, freegans and the odd fruititarian. That said, I no longer live there.

I now live in a majority Mexican neighborhood, within a short drive of Monterey Park, a diverse Asian community. Which is to say, I have to go out of my way to buy hummus. However, I have no problem getting a wide variety of great produce, any cut of meat and practically any ingredient needed for any ethnic cuisine. The issue is fish.

For Christmas, I got Jamie’s book “Cook with Jamie: My Guide to Making You a Better Cook.” I was particularly excited by the sections on fish and meat since I’m not particularly adept at preparing either of these, nor do I know anything about how to select the right items at the market. I realized Jamie is from another planet when I reach the section: “At the Fishmonger’s.” I have never seen a fishmonger in my life, which will probably make it tough for me to befriend him and call him in the morning to check on the latest catch. So I moved on to the other tips.

Fresh fish shouldn’t smell fishy.

Ranch 99, the massive Asian supermarket, has a vast selection of fish. That said, the entire place reeks of fish – all the way over to the produce on the opposite side of the store. I’m not sure about the particular fish I’m considering buying because the stench of fish is overpowering me as I sniff it. Is that a bad sign?

The eyes should be clear, bright and shiny.

One day I was at Ranch 99, when suddenly there was a stampede. I had a pretty great view, since I am a full head taller than all other people in Monterey Park, which would be awesome if there were more rock concerts over here. I realized one of the guys had just popped out with an enormous tub of live fish that he dumped into a vat in the aisle. People went CRAZY, grabbing the wiggling fish and wrangling them into their bags. Confirmed: the eyes were bright and shiny. On the down side, they were all gone by the time I got up there. Jamie, you might want to add a tip about the need to be assertive and not hesitate to use your elbows in the quest for fresh seafood.

If there are sustainability issues with a particular fish, it’s probably a good idea to use something similar in its place.

Since going to Monterey Bay Aquarium years ago, I’ve been carrying their Seafood Watch Guide in my wallet. Talk about buzz kill. Mercury in tuna!? Overfishing of Chilean sea bass!? Will it never end?! This guide has a bajillion varieties of fish in it – however, it was no match for the staggering selection at Ranch 99. There were varieties that I googled that only came up on the some sort of international fishing website that sounded like it was written by the CIA.

I mapped it. Click here to see all the varieties available on an average day.

I was able to pretty conclusively decide that farmed anything wasn’t going to cut it and imported was generally a hit against it. That left me with U.S. wild…fish paste. It looked like quivering gray mass of fish-based jello. And no-go on the salmon, usually my staple. At the end of the day, the only two items I could decisively conclude met sustainability standards were the lobsters and crabs. So I guess I’ll be eating like a queen…

So, Jamie, I could definitely use a hand over here pinning down this fishmonger business. I know you’ve been slumming in LA lately, so I’m not asking you to take a transatlantic flight or anything. Those westsiders you’ve been hanging with will probably not actually be able to locate my neighborhood. Just go east. You’ll know when you get there. I’ll treat you to a taco – and a boba tea.




Filed under Food, Los Angeles, Mexico, Uncategorized

Veggie Mexican Enchiladas: The Platonic Ideal

I am proud to announce that German and I have perfected our recipe for enchiladas. My contributions are negligible – this recipe is based off German’s mom’s recipe and it is delicious! Essentially, my only contribution is as a guinea pig cook. I was capable of making it multiple times with nothing but verbal directions, which should give all of you a reasonable shot at being able to duplicate this. First, collect a few key ingredients:

2 cans of El Pato Salsa de Chile Fresco/Tomato Sauce

2 cans of Trader Joe’s Tomato sauce

6 – 10 cloves of garlic

1 medium yellow onion

Bag of Guerrero corn tortillas

5 large red potatoes

2 medium zucchinis

1/2 lb of Monterey jack cheese

Dice the onion and mince the garlic. Saute in a pan with canola oil. Once the onions are translucent, add the cans of El Pato sauce and Tomato sauce. Simmer for several minutes until the flavors are good and melded. Set aside. Peel and cube the red potatoes. Cube the zucchini as well. Put the potatoes in a pot and put enough water to cover with about an extra two inches of water. Sprinkle in a 1/2 tsp of salt. Bring to a boil. Once boiling, drop in the zucchini cubes. Boil for a few minutes – until the veggies are soft, but not mushy. Drain in a colander in the sink. Grate the jack cheese.

Start heating a sauce pan. Give it a few minutes so that it’s piping hot. Proceed to heat up about 25 tortillas – once warmed, put them all in a tortilla warmer or in a tea towel to keep them warm. THIS IS IMPORTANT. If you use cold tortillas, they won’t sop up the enchilada sauce very well, they will not be pliable and will break when you go to roll them. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

This is where you need a kitchen buddy. Set up your assembly line, which at my house, goes from stove to table. On the stove, I have the hot pan on the left and the sauce pan on the right. Then I have a glass casserole dish on the table, then the bowl of potato and zucchini. One person is the dipper, the other is on spoon duty. The dipper should grab a warm tortilla, dip it in the sauce, flipping a few times to make sure it is good and sauced up. Put it at the edge of the glass dish. The second person should get a good scoop (2/3 cup) of the potato/zucchini mixture and put it along the length of the sauced tortilla. Tightly roll it and press it against one side – you’ll want all of these tightly packed so that they hold closed. Fill the whole dish. I usually end up putting 4 the opposite direction to fill the space at the top of the pan. Pour the extra sauce over the top. Sprinkle half the shredded cheese over the top, cover with tin foil and pop it in the oven for 10 minutes. When you take it out, sprinkle the rest of the cheese on top and let it melt. Ready to serve in five minutes. I like to serve beans and rice on the side. Garnish with sour cream (or crema), black olives, diced onion and cilantro.

A note on El Pato: It does not take an advanced student of the Spanish language to deduce that “Salsa de Chile Fresco” does not translate to “Tomato Sauce.” I have no idea what inspired this peculiar translation – the thing to focus on is the color yellow. El Pato also has a sauce with jalapenos that it sells in a red can (there’s a green can sauce too). These are not good substitutes. Look for the yellow! People, Las Palmas will NOT cut it. To put it in California parlance, Las Palmas is weak sauce – literally. El Pato has a great kick – too strong to be used alone, but dilute it with tomato sauce and it’s just right. I have no idea if El Pato is widely available at all Mexican markets – based on a Google search, it looks like it is available at Walmart, so keep an eye out. If you find it, load up, because I can guarantee you’ll want to make these ones again.


Filed under Los Angeles, Mexico, Recipes