Author Archives: Juan Lopera

Street Scenes in Urban 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.

“Those of us who are from Ciudad de Mexico, it’s represented as CMX, instead of as the old Mexico, Distrito Federal, is the official title. We are known as Chilangos. We love to eat street food, sold at mobile markets called Tianguis. They sell esquite, which are roasted corn kernels mixed with mayonnaise, chili powder and lime juice, fruit with chili powder, gorditas, which are fried tacos of all sorts and tamales, which are known as the Student’s Menu, and used to be ten pesos each. We also have lots of informal commerce, even on the Metro, which is always chaotic and crowded. Many of the products are chafa, which means imitation of famous labels; sold very cheaply, and that’s why we frequently say “Lo Barato Sale Caro”, or “what’s bought cheaply becomes expensive (since it never lasts).”

The informant describes an urban environ filled with constant access to food, trinkets, and other vendors. As a young medical fellow in the city, Jesús experienced busy city life first hand, and often ended up eating at these mobile merchants. Thus, the street food of Mexico and the small carts one buys tacos, tamales, and other foods from, have become a part of the memory Jesús has of Mexico City. Also interesting is the nickname of “Chilangos” given to city dwellers. This is a moniker widely used by Mexicans, who call Mexico City “Chilangolandia.” There are numerous theories as to why this nickname exists, yet no concrete answers have been found. Some believe the “Chil” portion refers to hot sauces, while the “Angos” portion refers to the Nahuatl toponym “Tenango.”

The market of knockoff goods exists in many Latin American countries and is a cultural economy that many depend upon. His reflections on Mexico City are an interesting case study in Mexican urban culture and its imagery. For a similar experience, I suggest visiting Santee Alley near downtown LA, which features many of the same authentic street foods and a similar market setting.

An Encounter With A Bolero Musician

The informant is a musician from Oaxaca, Mexico. He has been playing Bolero music for sixteen years and is incredibly talented. I approached him at an outdoor coffee shop after hearing him on his guitar. I’ve included a clip of him strumming a Bolero chord.

“Yes so, something I would like to share is music. When I think of folklore I think of my music, Bolero music, the genre of Bolero music. It was something that was taught to me by my dad when I was ten years old. And Bolero music comes from Cuba but it also kind of influenced from myself, to stay connected to my own culture, my own language.

So there’s a folklore of Bolero music. It’s kind of a lost tradition. So I celebrate it, I preserve it, everyday by playing the music, if not listening to it, that style of song on Spotify or on the radio.”

How did your father introduce it to you?

“I think through cassettes or CDs, we would listen to it every evening. And he told me and my brother ‘I want you to learn it, to learn this type of music. So he hired a teacher because it’s folk music. So Bolero is folk music, so you won’t learn it in universities or in schools. It’s specific to my culture.”

So what makes Bolero music distinct, what defines it?

“In my opinion what makes it distinct is the lyrics and talking about it musically, chords, the artists, what they call the golden era of Bolero music. It was started in the 1920s. It started in Mexico. But the music has history since 1883, so it has African, Cuban, European influences.

It’s a lot of heartbreak songs, like blues. But also celebrating love. There used to be serenades, like back in the 1930s-40s where you would serenade a woman that you felt attracted to, a partner. So it’s about love songs, it’s about feeling nostalgia.

I’ve been playing since I was fifteen, so sixteen years now. So now I’m trying to preserve it myself through a concert series that I started two years ago. There’s a lot of artists in LA that play this music but there’s no space or outlet for them to showcase especially folk music, and just folk music in general. So I created this concert series called Boleros De Noche.”

Some songs the informant recommended: Sin Ti, Amorcito Corazon, Cien Años, Sabor a mi, Besame Mucho. The first bolero is called Tristesas. That’s the first Bolero recorded.

Reflections on Sadhguru: A Philosophy to Paint By

I interviewed a young painter anda asked him for any responses. Below he shares a philosophy of life he paints by:

“Well, there’s, it’s not mine. I watched this talk, this interview of this guy Sadhguru, and he was talking to some, I think, this Neuroscientist, like a panel. And he’s, he ‘s like a mystic and they were talking about how there are five basic elements of nature, like earth, wind, fire, water, and acacia, which is like ether kind of. And, he said earth is sort of this gross material. Fire was heat. Water was gaseous, like fluid, fluidity. Ether was everything else. And he said the story of the first yogi. The first yogi was surrounded by his disciples, learned mathematicians, artists, architects, all these very intelligent people. They were asking him all about, all of life’s greatest questions, such as “Why are we here?’, “Who are we?”, those kinds of questions. And the yogi was just very bored with these questions. He just kept brushing them off because he thought these questions were very elementary. The yogi just basically said – “There are only five things which you need to care about” and he described the five elements. And he said, if you understand the five basic elements that guide this reality you can understand everything that it’s comprised of. But if you try and look at it from the outside in, you’ll cut it up into a million pieces and millions upon millions of forms will evolve. And he was relating it back to our modern reality and how all of these things, how all of this, our reality is so fractured. How there are so many kinds of people, how everywhere you look there’s this other thing and there’s so many people and they create so many different kinds of things, and they create so much waste. I don’t know there’s just this multiplication and it all comes from this singular source of life. As a result of, perhaps a refraction in this realm of duality. That stuck with me, because it was very telling of our time.”

Where did you hear this again?

“It was Sadhguru, he’s very famous, he does a lot of philanthropic stuff. He’s incredibly fascinating.”

Why did it stick with you?

“It very clearly illustrated how we got to this point, in terms of just the abundance of things, and the separateness, the perceived separateness of form between humans, and other objects. There’s this whole divisive mentality in our collective consciousness. And I think that’s what he was alluding to. It has to be known, it can’t just be told; the answers to all of those questions that all those very smart people were asking could not just be said, it wouldn’t have resolved the question. The question can only be embodied, known from within.”

Ghosts for Naughty Children

I interviewed my grandmother who is from Colombia and asked about any superstitions about ghosts. Below, she described how her grandparents got a household of thirteen children to get to bed early by scaring them about ghosts.

In spanish, followed by a full english translation below:

Ay aver…sobre los fantasmas. Pues eso era lo que nos contaban nuestros abuelos. Como no había luz, entonces ya a las siete se ponía escurecicimo y ellos se sentaban a contarnos historias para que nos diera miedo y para que nos dormiramos temprano. Entonces, ellos siempre decían que en las casas y en las fincas viejas habían era fantasmas de gente que no habían podido poder cansar nunca después de la muerte. Le ponían nombres distintos como el guerrero cojo, o el patasola, o la llorona. Era gente que no podían descansar porque habían cometido un error grave o habían echó alguna cosa mal echa. Entonces contaban eso y decían que ese espíritu estaba viviendo ya en la finca, y que o sí nosotros habíamos echo algo malo como, por ejemplo, comer nos unas naranjas que estaban para los huéspedes, o cualquier cosa que se crecía en la finca, las papas, los plátanos, eso era pecado comérselo por que era para que nosotros lo comiéramos como la familia. Entonces si uno de los niños se había comido un banano o un maduro o una naranja sin permiso, se moría del miedo, que el espíritu de algún fantasma lo cogiera. Entonces en cada instancia inmoral los abuelos tenían un cuento, como uno nuevo para decir nos a no robar, o cualquier cosa incorrecta. Y la manera de castigarnos no era ellos los abuelos, si no Dios, porque la gente que se moría después no podían descansar y venían a vengarse de las casas de los niños que hacían lo mismo que ellos hicieron. Por un lado ya estábamos en la oscuridad y nos daba mucho miedo de un espíritu, y los abuelos eran terribles entonces hacían que se cayera un plumero, o un libro, o que sonarán unas campañas que habían puesto listo para que suenen más sustosas. Como nos daban tanto miedo nos acostábamos temprano, nos tapábamos con las cobijas y nos durmiéramos rápido. Éramos trece niños nosotros y generalmente mi mama y mi abuelita. Ella venía mucho a ayudar por que éramos tantos niños! Casi cada año había un niño nuevo en nuestro casa, y éramos nosotros cada tipo de niño — los gritones, los locos, los felices, los que lloraban mucho. Te puedes imaginar por que hicieron esas historias de los fantasmas. Como más nos hubieran haber puesto a dormir!

ENGLISH:

Ah, let’s see, about the ghosts. Well, those are the kinds of stories our grandparents would tell us. Since there was no electricity, well it would get very dark in the house around seven and we would all sit around together and they would tell us stories so that we would get scared and so that we would go to bed early. So, they would always tell us stories about how in old houses and ranches like ours there were the ghosts of people who couldn’t leave earth after dying. They would give them different names, like the crippled soldier, the one-footed man, and the crying woman. They were all people that couldn’t rest in peace after death because they had committed some fault, or had done something quite sinful. So they would tell us these stories and would tell us that those spirits were living on our ranch, and that if we are ourselves had committed a sin, such as eating the oranges we had reserved for guests, or anything that grew on our land that was off limits, such as our potatoes, the plantains, touching any of those was bad because al that food was to eat as a family, not to steal individually. So if one of us kids ate a banana or an orange or anything without permission, one would be incredibly frightened, that a ghost would come and get them for stealing. So for everything immoral like that our grandparents had a story, like some new one to remind us not to steal. And in that manner it wasn’t ever the grandparents that would punish us, but God himself, because the people that died couldn’t find peace after their loss of life, and they would come to reap vengeance in the houses of those children that also committed their sins. On one hand we were already in the darkness of night, and we would be so frightened of a vengeful ghost, and yet our grandparents were so mischievous that they would make a broom or book fall randomly. Or even worse, they would make some bells they had chime in a way that was more eerie. These effects would make us so frightened that we would go to bed early, and we could cover ourselves with our blankets, and we went to bed quickly. We were thirteen kids in my household and generally it was my mom and my grandmother looking after us. My grandmother would come often because we were so many of us kids. Almost every year for a long time there was a new child in my household, and we were each of us every kind of kid – screamers, wildcats, the joyful ones, those who cried very much. You can imagine then, why they used these ghost stories; how else would they have put us to bed!

Analysis: I found this story very touching, even if my grandmother and her siblings’ experience must have been tough. I can imagine why the grandparents used these tactics to keep the children morally just and from staying up al night and over-running the ranch. My father actually used to do similar things late at night – he would tie up objects with fishline and make them fall and tell me there were ghosts in the house. I got very frightened and would go to bed very early as well. There seems to be a widespread tradition surrounding ghosts in childhood in Colombia. Often enough, these beliefs are intertwined with the predominantly catholic belief system.

Cagatió – The Shitting Log in Catalonian Culture

The informant is a good friend and has family in Catalan. Below, she describes an incredibly unique Christmas tradition:

“There’s another Catalonian tradition that most kids partake in, which is the Cagatió, or the Tió de Nadal. Which is a log with a face painted on the front and two little legs, which wears a little traditional Catalan hat called a Barretina. And it’s kind of like, the set up is somewhat like leaving Christmas cookies out for Santa. So for a few days leading up to Christmas Eve, you leave cookies out to make it fat and so for a week before you’re feeding it constantly every night. The parents, after the kids go to bed, they eat the cookies. And of course they tell the kids ‘Oh no, the Cagatió ate your cookies and he’s really happy and thankful and he’s going to get very fat. And so for discretion, of course you put a blanket over the back of the Cagatió. And to not hurt the Cagatió you take wood spoons from the kitchen and all the kids go to the sink and run the wood spoons under the warm water to soften them. While the kids are doing that, the parents hide little gifts under the blanket of the Cagatió, so like stocking stuffers but in the butt of the Cagatió, and so they tell them to come back out and so they take the wooden spoons, which are now soft, and you proceed to like whack it while singing the traditional Cagatió song, which is basically, in translation ‘Poop log, poop. If you don’t poop gifts for me, I’ll keep hitting you with this stick’. When you finish the song you take the blanket off the back of the Cagatió. And so basically you keep going back to the sink, you do this four or five times until he stops giving you presents. The parents put fewer and fewer gifts under the blanket each time to simulate the Cagatió running out of poop.”

So what is it again?

“It’s a log. It’s literally a log with a face painted on it. That was a favorite tradition of mine. My family has multiple sizes of Cagatió (laughs). We have a big one for the living room and also a travel sized one.”

Below is a translation of the traditional song:

 

“Caga tió,

caga torró,

avellanes i mató,

si no cagues bé

et daré un cop de bastó.

caga tió!”

ENGLISH:

 

“shit, log,

shit nougats (turrón),

hazelnuts and mató cheese,

if you don’t shit well,

I’ll hit you with a stick,

shit, log!”

 

Analysis: This is a very ancient tradition in Catalan and I’ve never heard of anything quite like it. The use of an actual shit log is very fascinating. The gifts that come out of the log are usually communal and small gifts, such as candies or small toys. The log almost takes on a personified character and specifically signifies a Catalonian person.