Author Archives: Juan Lopera

Pickley Christmas

The informant is a sophomore at USC from Long Beach, CA.

I was discussing folk traditions with the informant after class one day and she offered me a particularly odd Christmas tradition that she has in her own family

“Every Christmas day my mom hides a pickle ornament, a green pickle ornament. It used to be that it was supposed to be hidden over in the tree, and then whoever finds it gets the prize. But now, it’s hidden anywhere because of course it got too easy, but my whole family does that, and I’ve done that since I was little and I don’t know where it comes from.”

Here she describes a tradition surrounding a pickle ornament that seems intuitively quite odd. After some research I found a variety of explanations. Many believe the tradition to have originated from Germany, and to be referred to as Weihnachtsgurke. The truth is that this is an invented myth!

In reality this may well be a great example of fakelore – of a clever effort to unload and boost sales of a particularly eccentric ornament. In my discussion with her, she seemed to believe that this tradition was isolated and invented, yet it turns out to be quite a widespread tradition in America, and it even seems to have spread to its purported origin of Germany after the fact. The person who finds the Christmas pickle is believed to receive good fortune all year or an extra present. Berrien Spring, Michigan, a cucumber production center, was known as the Christmas Pickle capital of the world from 1992 to 2003. What an odd designation and interesting little tradition. The oddity of the ornament certainly adds to the tradition’s mystique, and thus its continue prominence.

Growing up in Homs, Syria

The informant is from Homs, Syria, living in the U.S. for twelve years now. She came from Saudi Arabia. She was interviewed at my family’s home.

“I miss everything about Syria. Nothing here tastes as good as it did there, where everything was natural, made with real butter, real animal fat, with fruits and vegetables grown organically, the food was so good you can not even imagine it. We had thriving, bustling cities, where community was vibrant. I loved that as I was growing up, we had neighbors and they would just jokingly show up, spooking me and my Mom, but that was normal, traditional and expected.”

What do you mean by that?

“You could come visit a neighbor, uninvited, anytime. Here, you have to call, make plans, call before and make sure you are still invited. I feel lonely here even though I do have friends. In Homs, when I was bored or lonesome, just walking the city was entertaining, seeing the people selling things, talking, stopping to eat something, to buy crafts, everything was handmade, and everything of exquisite quality, the craftsmanship was excellent, the result of years of practice and work. The textiles, the weaving, the beading, the pottery, our crafts were art! On fridays people do not work, so we visit relatives. The people were very family oriented, our values are community, sharing, helping and being in solidarity. What is happening now in my country is an unimaginable tragedy, what humanity has lost cannot be described in words.”

Here the informant is obviously very nostalgic about growing up in Syria, in what is now lost to endless war and aggression. She described to me that the marketplace of goods and cuisine in Syria was far more limited than anywhere else she has been, but that although restricted, everything was local and home cooked or home made. Particularly interesting is her emphasis on collective community. She described her living situation as a collection of one-story brick houses and that neighbors one often hop among houses, visiting neighbors and chatting casually. This is quite different than the private and individualized neighborhood lives that we live, although of course, we have different needs. I hope Roola gets to visit a peaceful Syria someday. She was very distraught discussing it.


Folk Traditions and Sayings from Monterrey Mexico

The informant is a pediatrician, originally from Monterrey, married to a radiologist also from Monterrey. I met her at a family barbeque where we discussed her own cultural traditions and forms of folklore. As I caught her while we were eating, she couldn’t help but think immediately of meals from back home, in Monterrey:

“Everything in Monterrey is celebrated with Carne Asada, like we are having here. Meat is central to every family gathering, celebration or get-together. Frequently, on Sundays, family visits grandparents and the central attraction is watching the soccer games, the “clásicos” where the Tigres and the Rallados are perpetual rivals. People from Monterrey are called Regios, and they were jeans for everything, all year long. “Guey” used to be a word only men used to call each other, but now even females use it to address their friends, and it such a common word, that is has made it to the dictionary, I still consider it vulgar, but it is widely used.

We love everything spicy, from fruit to meat to drinks. Whenever I go to Monterrey, I have to get street tacos and then go have a Chamoyada, which is shaved ice with chamoy, a fruit that has a strong taste, and lime. I also love Granielotes (which Jesús called Esquite), roasted corn kernels with mayonnaise, chili powder and limejuice; the spicier the better. My children don’t like them as much as we do, but they do love spice on their food. We also can pack Itacates, left-overs for our guests, and if we get a compliment, we would say, “Te bañaste, Guey”, you outdid yourself, pal! (Notice the different verbs in the identical expression)

The large family gatherings so prominent in Mexican culture are of course very famous. Across all of Mexico, the experience of watching the clásicos offers an important opportunity for one to catch up with the family. Monterrey is in some ways Mexico’s most urban and wealthy city. Regio means royalty or the quality of being awesome, so the implication is that being from Monterrey is an honor. Guey is an interesting and incredibly common saying that either means dude or bro, or can mean fool or ass if used with someone unfamiliar and in a harsh tone. Moslty the Mexican youth use the word, and adults (particularly those above her age) are still jarred by its use. Lastly, I want to call attention to the regional differences. Whereas my informant from Mexico City, Jesús, called the roasted corn esquite, She knows it as granielotes, which calls specific attention to the fact the corn is off the cob. Also, whereas another informant’s friendly saying involved “Te rayaste” (you scratched yourself), this informant’s regional saying is “Te bañaste,” or “you showered yourself”. Fascinating that although the two rhyme, they have incredibly different particular meanings, but as a saying mean the same thing.

The ‘Godinez’ In Mexican Culture

The informant is from Mexico City, currently rotating at UT Medical Center.

The interview occurred at a family barbeque on a Sunday.

He and I discussed what he thinks about when he thinks of his home, which is originally Mexico City. He said that there is nothing quite like the sights and sounds of the urban squares of the densely populated capital. Jesús was a medical fellow in the city and spent most of his early career in the bustling city center.

“Those who are stuck in office jobs, frequently government employees, are called “godinez”, and they are white collar, lower middle class people who never make progress.”

Is there a connotation?

“Yes, it is not a good thing to be called one, but it comes from a name, so it in not totally a diss. We love to use words that have a double meaning, our humor is a frequent play on words, and that is called ‘albur’.

‘De Pelos’ means fantastic, and if you attend a family meal, usually held on Sundays after church or as the natural offering to watch the two soccer rivals play a ‘clásico’; an important match between the Chivas and América, you might be lucky enough to take an ‘Itacate’ home, leftovers packed for later enjoyment, and you might thank your host by saying ‘Te Rayaste, Guey,’ which means, you really outdid yourself, pal!

Here, the informant delves into some of the vernacular inventions of everyday informal speech. Godinez in particular is quite interesting because it is a not uncommon last name that has been given a bad connotation. The Godinez is a desk mule, a no questions wimpy clerk. The origins of the pejorative are unclear, but some ascribe it to a typified character in the series El Chavo Del Ocho. On one hand, the Godinez exemplifies a hard working individual who is doing his or her best to bring home a respectable salary, even if the job is monotonous. And yet, there is in any case a cultural criticism of those who take such jobs too seriously, as is made clear by this sneer. Albur as a whole are quite similar to our use of puns. Often enough, they involve some form of sexual undertone. Itacate translates to provisions, which is quite a clever use in that, beyond being called simply leftovers, with a future purpose left unclear, Itacate implies a level of endearment. Provisions imply a future use, a looking out for the person whom is gifted the Itacate. It is often the case that the whole day is spent cooking for large neighborhood gatherings, and a huge amount of food is cooked so much is left over. In many Latin American cultures the guest is invited to take home the best left overs, is provisioned for future meals.


Urban Sayings in Mexico City

The informant is from Mexico City, currently rotating at UT Medical Center.

The interview occurred at a family barbeque on a Sunday.

 He and I discussed what he thinks about when he thinks of his home, which is originally Mexico City. He said that there is nothing quite like the sights and sounds of the urban squares of the densely populated capital. Here, Jesús discusses the marketplaces and street vendors in further detail.

“Hacerte Maje’ is a way of life, which means to cheat on people, and we sum it up by saying “el que no tranza no avanza”, which translates as “he who doesn’t cut corners doesn’t make progress”. Sadly, there is a tacit knowledge that corruption and lying are widespread; the “gandalla” is a person who breaks the rules in order to come out ahead. Traffic police are called Tamarindos, because they used to wear brown uniforms, the same color as the fruit, tamarinds, and México is known to be the capital of corruption. When an infraction is called, cops get paid to cancel the ticket, that payment is called “mordida,” which literally means bite. Public transport is usually run by organized groups that literally control the routes. People call the short, plump vehicles “peseros”. they used to cost one peso too, and they run the schedules and the routes as they please. The metro is also a place where things are sold illegally, and they pay the police “the mordida”, so that they are not stopped or detained as they carry on their business. On the metro you can be a victim of “bolsear”, which means to have your wallet stolen or “tortear,” to have your buttocks grabbed mercilessly; usually by a Patazo or Tigrazo; a despicable individual with no redeeming qualities. Our national holiday is on September 15th, not 5 de Mayo, as is wrongly assumed in the U.S.; although that commemorates the only victory our army had, the Batalla de Puebla. On Sep. 15th we celebrate “El Grito de Dolores”, which happened in Guanajuato.

This description of some of the folk sayings and forms of informal commerce gives some insight into the secondary economies of Mexico, wherein corruption and off the books dealings often do occur, but are so frequent they’ve become a part of the everyday. “El que no tranza no avanza” is an interesting saying that, although sly in tone, seems to imply that one cannot let others cheat, or to be weary of strangers. He gives the clarification that this saying for the most part applies to trivial happenings for the common person, and is used ironically when large-scale corruption is revealed. The fact of so many sayings surrounding corruption in Mexico gives us insight into the socialized aspect of discussing these exploitive practices. The question remains–is this socialization by folk dictums a form of combatting corruption, or have these sayings merely arisen due to frequency?

A Colombian Paisa Finds A Genie

This is a Paisa (Northern Colombian) joke I collected from a relative. Although the joke was performed as being distinctly paisa, it exists in multiple languages. In any case, it’s an excellent joke:

Below, the original Spanish followed by a complete English translation

Un paisa está haciendo un agujero en su jardín para plantar un árbol cuando desentierra una lámpara mágica.  La frota y le aparece un genio que le dice, ‘Te voy a conceder tres deseos, pero a tu vecino le voy a dar el doble de lo que tu me pidas.’  

‘Humm, mira, quiero una rubia que este buenísima y que pese 65 kilos; que le des a mi vecino cien millones de pesos, y que me des a mi un susto que me deje medio muerto….’


A paisa (Colombian countryman, cowboy) is making a hole in his garden to plant a tree when he finds a magical lamp in the ground. He rubs it and a genie appears, who says: ‘I am going to give you three wishes, with the exception that I’m going to give your neighbor double of what you ask me.”

‘Hmm, look, I want a 100 pound ruby that’s absolutely marvelous, that you give my neighbor a million pesos, and that you give me a scare that  scares me half to death’

Analysis: Any good paisa joke is based up in the mountains, or in the great outdoors where one works on the Finca, or Ranch. The joking hostility of the joke is quite interesting as the Paisa is known archetypically as a neighborly, kind Colombian. I love the joke and its play on words.

The Eagle Doesn’t Hunt Flies

I include this piece after an informant with family in Catalan told me that Catalonian proverbs are excellent. This one I found independently, but I quite like it.

L’àliga no caça mosques” 

In English translates to”

“The eagle doesn’t hunt flies”

Analysis: This is a brief but captivating proverb. I see it as a good summary of the wisdom that bickering about trivial things, and the accompanying haughty attitude one often finds in such situations, accomplishes nothing, and actually reflects quite poorly on the individual. A truly noble or wise individual deals with things in a just and calm manner, doesn’t chase after meaningless things and knows their position; thus, an eagle (the ruler of the skies) doesn’t bother with lowliness.

Taboo Against the Big Stall?

The informant says he’s had very little experience with taboos but that one experience in particular stands out to him:

When he was at the Mexico City airport, waiting for a connecting flight, he stepped into a mostly empty bathroom and went for the big stall because he likes the extra space.

Someone in the bathroom, a random stranger, stepped in his way and accosted him in Spanish, shaking his head in regards to the big bathroom. The informant was a bit surprised by the reaction and didn’t respond, choosing another stall entirely.

The respondent doesn’t know whether to attribute the taboo of using the big stall to the individual of that particular incident or to Mexican culture as a whole. In any case, since he’s spent such a short time in Mexico, he has nonetheless attributed that taboo to the whole of Mexican culture. He concedes that the big stall is important and necessary for those with disabilities, but affirms that in his experience it is the most popular stall.


This one is an interesting and minor piece of folklore. Because we don’t know whether it does describe Mexican culture or not, I won’t make any projections. I do think it is very important that we leave the large stalls alone if other ones are available, and leave them for those whom they’ve been designed.

Reflective Thoughts on Colombia

Informant is a Colombian woman from the second-largest city, Medellín, initially trained as a bilingual teacher. She’s now a writer and artist. She asked if she could have a moment to think and write me down her thoughts and thus the eloquent response:

“My place of origin and my culture are a defining component of my identity, but I did not always consider this fact a blessing. I wanted to leave my country as soon as I had the ability to voice my intentions. The mountains of the valley of Aburrá oppressed me. The Ave María Pues(Holy Mary Now What!) with which problems are faced, the Dios Proveerá (God Will Provide!), the fact that Colombia is entrusted upon the will and design of the HOly Spirit (Colombia, El País del Sagrado Corazón) did not seem to be promising facets of a land blessed with every natural resource imaginable but riddled with the curses of inequity and corruption, compounded by the love of malice and shortcuts for every endeavor and where “el vivo vive del bobo”, he who is astute feeds off the slow witted.

From a very young age, children are taught to tell and listen to frequent jokes about women’s lack of intelligence, instructed about the constant double meaning of words, familiarized with the taunting of men as not being macho enough. All of these behaviors I observed spoke to me of traumas, hypocrisy and a machismo and a sexual repression that belied a very convoluted psyche that encouraged mediocrity. Despite the obvious corruption and distortion of values I read in our humor and our political and social atmosphere, the good-natured spirit of the common Colombian always lightened my preoccupation and desire to flee. The generous smiles and animated conversation with the simplest of people, from mango and fruit peddlers to taxi drivers has always fascinated me. The average Colombian is talkative, spontaneous and friendly, and only after being duped and mugged many times did I develop a self-preservation instinct that made me more guarded and quiet. Music, food, stories and color were constant elements in my childhood. I sought them as refuge, as tools for understanding and for deconstructing the confusing society in which I was born. I danced at the same time that I walked, at ten months of age, dancing equals celebration of every sort in our culture. Our food is always shared and central to any get-together, and it is varied, flavorful and masterfully combines different textures and gradients of sweetness, sourness and salty component. For example, my favorite meal, sopa de arroz, is a beef broth based rice soup served with ground beef (beef ground after being cooked, which results in a light, dry, flaky  “carne en polvo”; accompanied by tajadas de maduro, heavenly sweet ripe fried plantain, hogao ( the base of our cooking, a mixture of stir-fried diced onion, tomato, garlic, cilantro, and green onion) on a crunchy arepa (corn patty) and of course, the slices of avocado that accompany all of our delicious soups.

Our food and our music are the two most important elements that I have proudly taught my children about so that they know about their heritage, as well as our stories, both the globally recognized literature and our own family stories, so unique, so colorful, and which never seem to stop flowing from our relatives’ mouths and from my own imagination.

We come from a rich, bio-diverse, intensely beautiful and convoluted country. Sometimes I envision Colombia as a snake, preciously designed with minute patterns and colors, but which needs to be approached cautiously, and might just offer the poison to be converted into anti-venom to save your life, as contained in our unbridled, loud, intense zest and surrender to life and its pleasures, but tempered by the fact that that very exotic and beautiful creature might seduce you and sink its teeth into your existence.

Analysis: I found this touching, as a Colombian ex-patriat. There is some animosity nowadays when we return to Medellin. My relatives find I have been Americanized. I can’t deny it, and I’m very much thankful for the opportunities I’ve been given in this country, the ways in which I have learned to think. There doesn’t go a day when I don’t think about the Andes, though. Not one. There’s so much in my memory from that place, and there’s a special feeling that I can’t describe that is especial to that place. I think my relative, the informant above, puts her thoughts into words quite well.


A Ritual Of Coffee Service Employees

The informant in question is a barista with one of the most popular and well established coffee companies in Los Angeles. The ritual in question is, in the informants experience, company wide. Every employee does it.

“Working at a coffee shop with constant, bustling lines and loud talk Is really tiring. Getting really good coffee to thousands of people in one day is a difficult task. Our service line is like a manufacturing line, and we have to also retain a certain level of quality. We start at six in the morning and some of us work far, far into the day. The work is good though.

Mid shift, when the shift is halfway over, we all take a shot of water from our espresso cups. It’s something we all do, right in the middle of the day. It’s like taking a real shot, you know? To celebrate, to get you through it. It’s like ‘the day is halfway over’ and it’s a nice tradition. It helps us keep working and get over the halfway bump”

How long have you been doing it?

“Oh, ever since I’ve been at the company. Always. It’s something we came up with as a team to motivate ourselves. At first we thought, maybe a shot of beer. But there’s lots of us that shouldn’t and can’t do that so we take a shot of water instead. It’s great”

Analysis: This is a cool little ritual that must be helpful for gathering some energy. These baristas are standing all day, constantly pulling shots and servicing people. At first, the informant couldn’t think of any pieces of folklore to share with me. But he got quite excited in sharing this little ritual of theirs.