Tag Archives: California


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

A Gringo’s Guide to Mexican-American Murals

Here in East Los Angeles, around every corner there are beautiful murals depicting the history of Mexico and the history of Mexicans here in the United States. While anyone can appreciate their beauty, the California public school curriculum is notably light on Latin American history so the events, people and symbols they reference may not be readily familiar to the casual observer.
The ultimate place to view murals is Chicano Park, located under the I-5 overpass in San Diego.
Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo
The park itself has a rich history and every mural tells a story. After visiting last year, I created this slideshow to give an intro to interpreting the images so everyone can enjoy these murals more deeply. I hope they will pique your curiosity to learn even more about the history of the Americas.

A couple of ways to view:

Go here and click on the photos one by one to see the captions.
Click here to see a slideshow – Click Show Info in the top right-hand corner to see the captions.

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Filed under California history, Los Angeles, Mexico, politics

California Country

I’m not sure when I started liking country music. It was a little too hokey to match my teenage angst which was better accompanied by Nirvana and Sublime. However, I grew up in ag country, so the stuff was in the ether, strains squeezing out of huge trucks in the school parking lot, blasting from the main stage at the county fair and accompanying the line dancing at the only place for 18-year-olds to go dance in the Sonoma area – Kodiak Jack’s in Petaluma (“Home of Kodiak, the Mechanical Bull”) which had an all-ages night on Thursdays.
At some point, I decided that I liked the Dixie Chicks and Shania Twain, adding some bluegrass and alt-county through college – Lucinda Williams, Gillian Welch, Neko Case, the Be Good Tanyas. And I got quite hooked on Johnny Cash (and Johnny Cash Radio on Pandora). Since “country music” ranges from Willie Nelson to Tammy Wynette to Carrie Underwood to Garth Brooks, it is both a guilty pleasure and a deep vein of American history with songs that stand the ages.

Here’s a playlist of some of the fun stuff.

The other day, I was listening to the local country station (I am still unclear how the LA market can support two pop country stations since I have yet to meet a country music listener here) and they played this song:

It caught my ear because it referenced California and I realized that the Golden State doesn’t figure very high in the content of country music. Which got me thinking.
Are any country music stars from California?

This being the Age of Google, I was pretty easily able to dig up some California country songs, including this one:

Full disclosure: I found it because I was listening to her other hit, “Redneck Woman,” to see if I could line dance to it.

Here are the full lyrics for those of you with dial-up:

California Girls – Gretchen Wilson

Well I ain’t never had a problem with California
There’s a lot of good women, from Sacramento to Corona
But them Hollywood types, after a while wear on ya
Strutin’ around in their size zeros,
Skinny little girls no meat on their bones
Never even heard of George Jones

Ain’t you glad we ain’t all California girls
Ain’t you glad there’s still a few of us left, who know how to rock your world
Ain’t afraid to eat fried chicken and dirty dance to Merle
Ain’t you glad we ain’t all California girls

There ain’t nothing wrong with plastic surgery
Well, Dolly Parton never looked so good to me
Everybody oughta be exactly who they want to be
But that Paris Hilton gets under my skin
With her big fake smile and her painted on tan
Never had a chance at a real man

Ouch. Good thing Katy Perry and the Beach Boys already prepared a musical retort on behalf of us California girls.

However, I still didn’t feel I’d really found a genuine connection between country music and California. The few songs out there usually reference California as somewhere people are running away to. I did notice an inordinate number of references to one California locale however – Bakersfield. This allowed me to finally connect the dots:

Dust Bowl forced Okies to migrate to California’s Central Valley => Many settled in Bakersfield => Some of them made country music, including: Merle Haggard who is a NATIVE of California and saw Johnny Cash play when he was an inmate => He was later covered by the Grateful Dead => Gretchen Wilson references Merle in her song denigrating California girls

Ta da! I’ll admit, California’s not exactly the birthplace of country, but the love is there. So quit being too cool for school, Cali kids, and embrace your country roots.

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Filed under California history, I heart Cali, Los Angeles

A familiar death / Muerte de un familiar

Two weeks ago, a man from El Monte was kidnapped from a bar and shot in the head while on vacation in Mexico. He was one of six men taken from that bar and killed that night. His was one of hundreds of murders that year alone in the state of Durango, which has a population of only 1.5 million. Some 10 million people live in Los Angeles County.
Bobby Salcedo’s case broke the news story template though – he was an American, a school board member well-loved in his community, just 33 years old. He was visiting his wife’s family, who hail from Gomez Palacio.

LA Times: Civic leader from El Monte is victim of Mexican violence

In the newspaper articles, he is described not so much as a murder victim, which would imply some intimacy between him and his killers. He is simply: “a victim of Mexican violence.”
As Americans, we like explanations. Could he have been involved with the drug wars? Were the people he went out with involved in narco-trafficking? In the absence of any evidence that there was any reason he should have died that night, the conclusion was simply: wrong place, wrong time. Those who had to pin blame even had the audacity to blame Bobby Salcedo himself for ever having gone to Durango, or even the country of Mexico.
At his memorial, many asked us to honor his memory by being better people and serving our communities, “so he wouldn’t have died in vain.” We begged the authorities to intervene and give us all justice, just this once.
But I don’t think his real killer will ever be caught, nor do most Mexican-Americans on this side of the border. In Mexico, there is no longer an expectation of justice, other than the divine kind. Even karma seems more reliable than the Mexican justice system.
When I heard about Bobby Salcedo’s murder, I was shocked, saddened, angry, but I believed it. That an innocent man could be shot for no reason in northern Mexico was something I could believe.
I met Bobby Salcedo for the first time about a week before his death at a tamalada in El Monte. I didn’t know him, but I knew people who knew him, and his murder was simultaneously surreal and familiar. Narco violence. Kidnappings. Arbitrary killings. We’ve heard that story. We’ve stopped really hearing it anymore. Bobby Salcedo’s death reminds us that the drug war isn’t something that happened in the 1990s. People live and die by it every day.
Take a moment of silence for the thousands and next time you hear about tragedy in another country, pretend for a second that you have family there.

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Filed under Los Angeles, Mexico

What a way to wake up

I was deep asleep at 6:30 am on Sunday morning when the sound of trumpets squeezed through my window. It was a full ensemble of mariachis playing “Las Mananitas,” the traditional Mexican birthday song to fete a neighbor who just turned 15. What a trip!

Mariachis playing \"Las Mananitas\" in Boyle Heights

A note on Las Mananitas: Contrary to popular belief, the Mexican birthday song is not the American one substituting “Feliz cumpleanos” for “Happy birthday.” I haven’t verified this, but I would argue it is the longest, most complicated birthday song in the world. It took me months to fully master and memorize. Here are the lyrics in English:

This is the morning song that King David sang
Because today is your saint’s day we’re singing it for you
Wake up, my dear, wake up, look it is already dawn
The birds are already singing and the moon has set

How lovely is the morning in which I come to greet you
We all came with joy and pleasure to congratulate you
The morning is coming now, the sun is giving us its light
Get up in the morning, look it is already dawn

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Filed under Uncategorized

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

The unstoppable Orange County

When I moved to LA, I feel like I inadvertantly chose sides in a long-standing feud: Los Angeles vs. Orange County. There is obviously a lot of history going way back, a lot of bad blood and passion. Well, I’m not from here so I don’t get it, the same way people from Texas don’t recognize the HUGE differences between Sonoma and Napa (Napa’s for auto parts – Sonoma’s the best. Even Grey’s Anatomy hunks agree! McDreamy: “Sonoma. Smaller hotels. Fewer tourists.“). So far, these are things I’ve noticed on my brief forays to Orange County.

  • The highway is a lot wider.
  • There is a lot of water-intensive landscaping, even in the industrial parks, but there are basically no orange trees anywhere.
  • The outdoor mall in Irvine can only be accurately described as vast.

Thankfully, there is a book to enlighten us on the charms of this southern land: Orange County: A Personal History.


I found out about the newest book by Gustavo Arellano, the author of the syndicated column, Ask a Mexican, from his recent Zocalo lecture. I’ve taken to downloading the lectures as podcasts and I listen at the gym so that I’m simultaneously getting both buffer AND smarter.
The same way a good teacher can make anything interesting, so can a good writer. Gustavo Arellano is as funny as ever, plus the book has lots of my favorite stuff – history and musings on Mexican/American culture. He’s got a great section on OC religion from The Purpose-Driven Life to the Hour of Power. I’m planning a field trip to the Crystal Cathedral.
Orange County is actually part of my personal history as well. I may have been raised in Northern California, but my half-sister, Dana, grew up in Newport Beach, as did her husband. I recently visited my sister’s old haunts for the first time ever. We walked around Balboa Island and she pointed out places our dad used to go when his family vacationed down south in the summers. It was kind of surreal to be connected to a place I’d never visited.
But as Gustavo points out, we’re ALL connected to Orange County in one way or another, since it’s one of those rare American places with political and cultural influence far beyond its size. He may be the county’s #1 critic, but he’s also it’s #1 cheerleader. Read it, love it, embrace the OC. (Just don’t call it that.)

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Filed under California history, Orange County