Category Archives: writing
Despite the ominous title, te juro – we had an amazing time in El Salvador and I have a lot to share with you. This will be the first of several posts about our adventures. I haven’t really written for two weeks, except for the notes I kept in a small book during our travels. I hope writing is like riding a bicycle, (“Once you learn, you never forget”) – because at the moment I’m finding it difficult to put any of my thoughts and emotions into words.
So much happened in such a short time, I’m not even sure where to start. As soon as I stepped off the plane I was overwhelmed with an urgency to absorb everything – every scent, sight, taste, sound, detail. It’s impossible, of course, but I tried. There was so much I couldn’t capture with my camera, but there were solid rather than poetic reasons for that. In some places/situations, the risk of theft and drawing attention to ourselves was too great – other times I didn’t pull out the camera because I don’t like to make others uncomfortable.
As much as I tried to blend in, it wasn’t possible. At the San Salvador airport, Comalapa, the man who checked over our passports before granting entry, asked Carlos if the boys and I were all his children. I had my hair down to cover my face and wore sunglasses. Carlos told him that I was his wife. I removed my sunglasses so he could compare it to the passport photo and he charged me for a tourist visa. (Carlos and the boys didn’t have to pay even though they’re all U.S. Citizens, too.)
Everywhere we went, people stared completely sin pena. I realized that while gringas married to Latin American men are becoming increasingly common here in the U.S., it’s still something of a novelty in El Salvador. Maybe many people know of a friend or cousin who immigrated to los Uniteds and married a gringa, but, (perhaps due to lack of legal paperwork) – they don’t travel back to El Salvador on vacation. (Or they travel back and don’t bring the wife with them.) I didn’t see a single gringa/Salvadoran couple, (or any interracial/intercultural couple for that matter), the entire time we were there.
I also realized that using a backpack and chanclas definitely wasn’t helping me blend in. While generalities don’t apply to everyone, I’ll say that most women I saw in El Salvador, (especially in the malls) – carried big, fancy-looking purses and wore high heels. Some of the women could barely walk in their shoes. I watched one woman nearly fall down the escalator with her baby because of her stripper-esque platform heels, (her friend grabbed her arm and held onto her until she regained balance.) The women also wear jeans so tight from waist to ankle that I really have no idea how they fit into them, and form fitted tops as well. In El Salvador it doesn’t matter if you’re flaca, curvy, rellenita, or gorda – Tight clothes are what you wear. It was really freeing for me to see women my size and bigger who seemed to have no shame about their panzas. Not only did they have no shame, they seemed proud, walking belly first, head held high, with plenty of confidence that they were just as sexy as their slimmer friends. When it came to fashion, there was no attempt to hide or camouflage fat like women here in the United States do.
I noticed that heavy make-up and thinner eyebrows, (what I call “chola eyebrows”) are also common. I definitely felt the need to up my game while in El Salvador. With all the women walking around looking so hot, the casual tourist look wasn’t cutting it. I started carrying a big purse instead of the backpack, plucked my eyebrows a little thinner, (not totally chola, but thinner), and began putting on more eye make-up than I thought was decent for daytime. I felt this helped me blend in a little, but I refused to trade my chanclas and regular fitted jeans for high heels and skin-tight pants.
And it wasn’t just the women who looked nice. Most of the men, (again, especially in shopping malls and usually in the 15-30 age range), loved to wear name brand shirts, stylish jeans, (sometimes as tight as the women’s), and either name brand sneakers or pointy-toed shoes. The most popular hairstyle among young men was definitely the faux-hawk.
(Note: Again, this was what I saw in the malls of San Salvador. Out in the markets, on the streets, in areas outside of San Salvador, with older and more religious people – the fashion tended to be more conservative.)
We spent a lot of time walking around Metrocentro, a huge multi-level mall with indoor and outdoor shopping, kiosks, food court, movie theater and a “pasarela” (pedestrian walkway over a busy road) – to connect you to the other half of the mall. I was told that Metrocentro is the “poor people mall.” When I asked how the “poor people” could afford to look so trendy, I was told they prefer to wear name brand shoes and survive on beans and tortillas for breakfast. I don’t know how true that is, but that’s what I was told.
In the malls there was an abundance of people trying to sell me cell phones or a weekend at a resort. For the first couple days I was very polite in my response – listening to the vendor’s pitch and then issuing a “no gracias” with a smile. This of course becomes exhausting and I realized why locals just keep walking and usually say nothing.
I admit, at first I thought Salvadorans were rude because they don’t say “excuse me” – I stuck out as a gringa for this reason alone. Walking through crowds I’d say, “Con permiso” and “Perdon” multiple times. Eventually I realized, the locals weren’t being rude, it’s just accepted that with this many people in a small area, you will get bumped and brushed, elbowed and stepped on, by strangers. It’s accepted that you can’t give everyone personal space, (Americans love their bubble of personal space but in El Salvador, be prepared for that bubble to be burst.) … No one says “excuse me” because it would be exhausting to apologize to every person you touched.
Most Salvadorans you encounter working in stores and restaurants provide excellent customer service. You’ll always be greeted warmly with a Buenos días/Buenas tardres/Buenas noches. If you say “gracias” – it will always be met with an “a la orden.” People will thank you for your patronage and wish you “Buen día” – and Carlos was often referred to as “caballero” – (gentleman.) In fact, there was one woman who was too friendly with Carlos and it made me very uncomfortable.
After a week in El Salvador, Carlos’s hair already needed a trim, so I insisted we stop somewhere to get him a haircut. We found a place in Metrocentro and went in to inquire. The cost of the haircut was $6 and apparently it included a massage that seemed, at least to this gringa, to be really inappropriate. You should have seen the way she was touching his head. I think she enjoyed it more than Carlos did. Carlos, to his credit, was very uncomfortable and told her several times that the massage wasn’t necessary. The boys and I sat watching in shock as the young woman massaged Carlos’s head for a good ten minutes. She looked at me while she was doing it, smiled slyly, and started laughing as she continued a conversation with Carlos, asking him if it felt good, etc. A friend later assured us that the massage is a normal part of the haircut and Carlos didn’t receive special treatment. I got over the jealousy after about 15 minutes but for the rest of the trip I teased Carlos saying it was only fair for me to go get my hair cut by a man.
A lot of time was spent absorbing all these cultural differences and then sorting out the resulting thoughts and emotions. Thankfully this time of adjustment didn’t cause me to shutdown the way it did last time I went to El Salvador. During our time there, I was quite often pensive, (as well as fighting a flu which locals insisted was “allergy to the climate”) – but I was always happy. It helped to know the boys, and even Carlos, were trying to make sense of everything right along with me.
I’m in a waiting room surrounded by quiet gringos. All of us do our best to spread out, to give each other as much personal space as possible. We stare at the TV in the uppermost corner of the room, flip through magazines, or play with our cellphones. We don’t talk.
The automatic doors whoosh open and a Latino family comes in. A father, a mother, two young daughters. They are speaking at a normal indoor volume, but not in the hushed tones of people who don’t want to be overheard. They’re speaking Spanish. They glance around the room, even making eye contact with me, before continuing on, unaware that I understand every word of what they’re saying.
I hold my magazine a little higher to hide my smile.
After signing-in with the receptionist, the husband and wife discuss who will go back to see the doctor with the youngest daughter and who will wait in the waiting room with the older daughter. The wife seems to be a good ten years younger than the husband. She rakes her fingers through her hair while snapping her gum. She adjusts her big sunglasses on top of her head and checks each ear to see that her jewelry is still there. She plays with her cellphone, twists the shiny ring on her finger, and then pulls out a makeup bag from her purse – she ignores the children. The husband, a tall, handsome man with wide shoulders and salt-and-pepper hair, tends to their daughters. The little girls ask their father for a snack and it is he who opens the diaper bag and gives them one while his wife, with her legs crossed just-so, touches up her nail polish.
The family’s surname is called. The father stands, hefts the little girl into his arms, and walks dutifully through the door that the nurse holds open. The wife blows on her nails and looks bored.
The older daughter sits across the row from her mother. She holds a plastic toy horse in her hands. The mane and tail are hopelessly tangled. The little girl puts her arms down at her sides – opens her hand and drops the toy horse onto the linoleum floor. Some in the waiting room look up to see what caused the clatter and then look away. The mother puts her makeup bag back into her purse and then pulls her cellphone from the pocket of her tight white jeans with careful fingers, so as not to ruin the fresh polish.
The little girl lets her whole body go limp, and slides from the chair to the floor, her dress getting caught up on the seat and showing her underwear. I smile at her. She stares at me, hard, neither smiling or frowning. Her eyes are a warm fiery brown, and her black curls are as hopelessly tangled as the mane of her toy horse.
She turns to her mother.
“Mamá, yo quiero un juguito,” she says. The mother says nothing in response to her request for juice.
“Mamá, yo quiero un juguito,” she repeats, this time standing and patting the diaper bag which held the snack her father had gotten her earlier.
“No,” the mother answers, without explanation.
“Porqué no, Mamá? Tengo sed. Quiero un juguito de la bolsa, Aquí traemos—”
“No,” the mother answers again, as she types a text into her cellphone and shakes her leg impatiently.
The little girl stomps her foot, crosses her arms over her chest and then slides back down to the floor.
She mumbles in Spanish that she wants her father to come back because he would give her a juice.
The mother tells her to be quiet.
The girl is quiet… but only for a moment. She looks around the room, at all the gringo faces. In accented but very clear English she tells her mother, “I hate you! … and you’re ugly!”
The gringo faces look up at the little girl and her mother, surprised, amused. The mother mumbles in Spanish – calls her “malcriada.”
The little girl smiles in satisfaction, picks up her toy horse, and tries to work her fingers through the tangles in its hair.
Image source: Melissa Venable
(Today is Spanish Friday so the following post is en español. Don’t speak Spanish? No problema! Just scroll down to the English translation below.)
Me cuesta mucho buscar las palabras por explicar cómo me siento yo ahorita – (¡aún en inglés!) … Es casi el mismo sentido que uno siente cuándo está enamorado. No puedo pensar en nada salvo los Billboard Latin Music Awards. No tengo nada de hambre, no tengo sueño – sólo tengo mis ensueños de caminar en la carpeta roja con un vestidito super lindo, la playa que me recuerda mucho, la música, mis amigas, y estar rodeada de hispanohablantes y la cultura Latina – Miami y este evento son nada menos que el paraíso!
¿Y sabes qué? Espinoza Paz está nominado en varias categorías! Ay mi madre! Sí está mi Espinoza, y sí tengo el chance de conocerlo cara a cara – me muero! (Pero me muero feliz!)
La unica cosa es que quiero llevar Carlos conmigo. Él tiene muchos años trabajando fuerte sin irse en vacaciónes y lo merece mucho. Carlos no conoce Miami y ya sé que va a enamorar de la ciudad como yo lo hice el año pasado. Entonces, estoy buscando más trabajo, (escribiendo), y Carlos buscando trabajo en cortar grama o cualquier cosa que puede encontrar fuera de su trabajo regular, para que ahorramos un poco extra por comprar el boleto que necesita.
Así que, a trabajar voy, mis amigos! … Y Miami, mi amor, regresaré muy pronto!
Te dejo con un video: Armada Latina – Cypress Hill featuring Pitbull and Marc Anthony.
Pitbull está tan lindo y chistoso en este video. Chécalo!
It’s difficult for me to find the words to explain how I feel right now – (even in English!) … It’s almost the same feeling one feels when they’re in love. I can’t think of anything except the Billboard Latin Music Awards. I’m not hungry, I’m not tired – I just have my daydreams about walking on the red carpet dressed in a super cute gown, the beautiful beach I often think of, the music, my friends, and being surrounded by Spanish speakers and the Latin culture – Miami and this event are nothing less than paradise!
And guess what? Espinoza Paz is nominated in various categories! If my Espinoza is there, and if I have the chance to meet him face-to-face – I will die! (But I’ll die happy!)
The only thing is that I want to bring Carlos with me. He has spent a lot of years working hard without going on a single vacation and he really deserves it. Carlos has never been to Miami and I know he’ll fall in love with the city like I did last year. So, I’m looking for more work, (writing), and Carlos is looking for more work, cutting grass or whatever he can find outside his regular work, so we can save a little extra that we need to buy his ticket.
So then, back to work I go, my friends! … And Miami, my love, I’m coming back real soon!
I leave you with a video: Armada Latina – Cypress Hill featuring Pitbull and Marc Anthony.
Pitbull is so cute and funny in this video. Check it out!
I don’t know what makes me happier – the fact that my 9 year old is writing stories, or the fact that they contain a little Latin sabor.
At school they’ve been practicing for a writing assessment, and my son brought home some of his stories.
I may be biased, but I think he shows promise. I gave him a hug and told him I loved his stories.
“Writing must be in the blood!” I said proudly. Carlos smacked his forehead.
“I guess we’ll have to build an addition onto the house so he can live with us forever then,” he said.
Anyway, here is his entire story transcribed. I corrected spelling and some punctuation but everything else is as he wrote it.
A Magical Trip To Mexico
by J. López (9 years old)
I was wanting to go to Mexico with my family. I snapped my fingers and I was there. I decided we should make a party. My family came along. We had a lot of snacks. The snacks were salsa, chips and much more. We even had a confetti machine.
The music was very good. Now it’s time to hit the piñata. The piñata was a donkey and was purple, green and red. Everyone hit the piñata – nothing came out. Now it was my turn. I hit the piñata – Whack! Whack! The donkey broke in half. All the sweets fell on the ground. There were red, blue, yellow, and green candy. I put so many in my pockets that I thought it might explode.
They had big hats. They were colorful. Some were black – I tried them on – way too big. I tried the colorful ones – too small. Then I saw a black and white hat that looked like a mariachi hat. I tried it on – just right. Then I went to the costume room. Next I looked for a suit that would match my hat. I saw a suit that was just right. I tried it – it was great.
When I came out of the dressing room I saw a mariachi band on the stage, so I went back to the costume room. I saw a chest full of instruments. I saw a blue guitar. It looked sapphire blue. I took it. I went back onto the stage and played with them. Then I tripped and I was back in my room. In my pocket I found a piece of confetti. I wondered if I really went to Mexico or if it was a dream.
(English translation in italics below!)
Usualmente cuándo viene mi suegra de El Salvador, me trae recuerdos, (ya tú sabes!) Los recuerdos son típicos de El Salvador, y a veces, predecibles – pero esta vez que regreso mi suegra, me trajo una sorpresa. El regalo que me trajo ella no sólo es lo más chévere regalo que he recibido de El Salvador, pero es uno de los regalos más chivo que he recibido en todo mi vida!
Usually when my mother-in-law comes from El Salvador, she brings me souvenirs, (you already know that!) The souvenirs are typical of El Salvador and sometimes predictable – but this time when my mother-in-law returned, she brought me a surprise. The gift she brought me is not only the most awesome gift I’ve received from El Salvador, but one of the coolest gifts I’ve received ever!
¿Puedes adivinar lo que está adentro de la caja?
Can you guess what’s inside the case?
Es una máquina de escribir! A veces siento que mi suegra no entiende exactamente que hago aquí en la computadora escribiendo todo el día – que ella piensa que estoy muy floja, pero tal vez me respeta en su manera.
It’s a typewriter! Sometimes I feel that my mother-in-law doesn’t understand exactly what I do on the computer writing all day – that she thinks I’m really lazy, but maybe she respects me in her way.
Mi hijito estaba más fascinado que yo. Me dijo, “Esto es lo qué usaban cuándo no habian computadoras?”
My youngest son was even more fascinated than I was. He said, “Is this what they used before computers?”
Ay! Pero qué lindo! Tiene la “ñ”!
Oh my gosh! How cute is that? It has the “ñ”!
Quién dijo que las máquinas de escribir son obsoletas? No puedo imaginar usandola por escribir un manuscrito, pero quizás puedo usarla por blogear?
Who said typewriters are obsolete? I can’t imagine using it to write a manuscript, but perhaps I can still use it to blog?
Last night a man Suegra knows showed up on our doorstep. His name is Ángel. He entered the house shyly, apologizing for disturbing us, and only sat down in the living room at our insistence. “I’m not here to stay,” he said, “I only have something I’d like you to bring with you back to El Salvador, to deliver to my family,” he said to Suegra.
So as not to be rude, I sat down, too. I was only being polite, was anxious for him to leave so I could get back to the kitchen where a pot of Sopa de Res simmered. Suegra and Ángel began to talk though and within minutes I forgot about the soup, becoming completely lost in his story. He stayed for over an hour, and during that time I came close tears. His story is not unique, which makes it sadder still. If you don’t have the opportunity to meet someone like Ángel, allow me to introduce you. The following was inspired by him.
deserving of the name,
works another day in the factory
the acrid chemicals burn his lungs
the scent of hot melted plastic
made into fancy bathtubs for rich people.
He sends money to his family in El Salvador,
even as he coughs up blood.
He finds work in a kitchen instead,
worries the bathtub factory has already taken years off his life,
(“pero ójala que no” and “Primero a Dios” he says)
At the restaurant, he washes dishes in hot soapy water,
and talks like a Mexican,
“No por vergüenza,” he says, “Pero, sólo que los Mexicanos no me joden, entiendes?”
And with his raw red hands,
he sends money to his family in El Salvador,
He works and sleeps, doesn’t have a girlfriend like some men he knows.
“I’m not like that,” he says, showing us a photo of his family.
With the money he sends to El Salvador,
a nice house has been built, in a neighborhood with no pandilleros,
a house where his children are growing up without him,
and his wife sleeps alone, (he hopes.)
Sometimes in the middle of the night
he remembers his journey through the desert years ago,
the days were hot-hot,
and the nights cold-cold,
but nothing is colder than this quiet apartment in the United States,
just a place to sleep before another day of work,
so he can send money to his family in El Salvador.
September is a special month to me. It’s the month I started this blog last year, and though my husband and I met each other at the end of August all those years ago, September is when we became novios. And so today has me thinking about the early days, when we were new to each other, and I was still discovering all the little things about him that endeared him to me…
I first noticed my husband’s escritura, (handwriting) within minutes of meeting him. He gave me his name and phone number, and instead of the chicken-scratch I was used to seeing from American boys, I held in my hands something not only completely readable, but strangely intriguing.
As novios, I looked forward to his love letters, not just for the words themselves, but the way in which they had been written – the form of each individual letter. Everything about him reminded me of how different we were, from our inability to communicate at times, (I read his love letters with an English-Spanish dictionary by my side), to something as simple as the way we write the letter “e”.
They say “love is blind”, and while I agree with the sentiment, it isn’t literally true. We saw our differences, and were fascinated by them.
Many handwriting experts claim you can’t tell a person’s ethnicity or nationality by their handwriting, but again, I say this isn’t true. (Link is to a PDF titled: “Spanish Handwriting And Spelling” – a document meant for non-native Spanish speakers deciphering Spanish documents to extract information. The fact that such a document exists proves that there are differences!)
Maybe it isn’t fool proof, but I’m able to pick out the handwriting of native born Salvadorans from that of U.S. born Americans. While I haven’t seen handwriting samples from all Latin American countries, everybody in my husband’s family – his mother, his sister, his brother, his cousins and uncles – even completely unrelated Salvadorans I’ve met, all have similarities in their handwriting. I can’t tell you if it’s a uniquely Salvadoran handwriting or a Spanish-speaking/Latin American way of writing, but it is different – and noticing a difference is not a bad thing.
In this politically correct world we’re admonished to look for the similarities, but I say go ahead and look for the differences, and celebrate them, because they’re beautiful.
My niños are going back to school. Now it will just be me and Suegra home alone all day. I’ll miss the kids, but I’m happy that I’ll have more time to write uninterrupted – (though with Suegra still here for another month, I shouldn’t celebrate too early.)
Yet, there is something about the smell of school supplies and the chill in the morning air that makes me not just ready for change, but desiring of it, maybe just as much so as the leaves on a maple tree. This year has been no different and so it came to be that yesterday I asked my husband to buy me a desk. I decided I needed a more solid place to call my own, something more substantial than the solitary papsan chair in the corner of the room.
I intend to write – not think about writing. Write more than blog. Write and repress the urge to check Twitter, the news, and my E-mail box, in an endless cycle. I will write because one of these days, tomorrow, or 70 years from now, will be my last, and I will wish I had written more.
And so tomorrow, while the niños are at their desks at school, I will be at mine.
La niña sits
snuggled close to her father
A stranger’s smile
sends her burying her face
into his cotton dress shirt
which smells of sunshine
is set on the table
hot! – hot!
(caliente y picante both)
oily circles float on the surface
looking like the puddles at a carwash that Papi says not to touch,
but this, he says,
Eat. Coma. Andalé pues,
and puts a warm tortilla into her hand.
- Tracy López
(If un-ladylike language upsets you, read no further…and honestly, maybe you’ll want to avoid my blog altogether since you never know when I might let one slip out.)
“P” is for “pissed off”
“P” is for “peleando”
“P” is for “pinche”
In “real life”, I don’t usually cuss in polite company but as a writer, I love words, and that includes the dirty ones.
Latin America has a colorful rainbow of cusses to choose from, words as diverse as the countries themselves. When I first started learning Spanish and picked up a book subtitled “the words your teacher won’t teach you”, I was like a kid in a candy store, picking and choosing the words I liked best and committing them to memory. I noticed that most of the words I chose had a (mx) symbol next to them, signifying that the word was of Mexican origin. Ah, Mexican vulgarisms! They were by far my favorites.
And so it came to be that “pinche” became my word of choice. I love the way it looks, the way it sounds, the way native speakers linger on the first syllable, and the creative stream of unpredictable language that follows. It looks so cute and harmless to native English-speaking eyes, a false cognate for “pinch”. I’ve heard that in Spain the word simply refers to a boy who works in the kitchen, and in other Latin American countries it can mean various other things which are equally mild. Really, there’s no way to know if someone will be offended by it, whether they be Mexican or not, but that doesn’t stop me from using it once in awhile. (Something I’ve discovered my husband fails to appreciate.)
The other day el macho and I got into an argument, which isn’t really news in itself. The thing is, our arguments have a new dimension to them now that we have text messaging on our phones. This allows me to not answer his calls but continue fighting through my preferred method – writing. Está chévere, no? Well, my husband doesn’t think so.
When we were finally face-to-face once again he said to me, “Stop texting me when we fight… And stop using the word pinche!”
“Hey, you can’t tell me what words to use. I’ll use pinche if I want to.”
“I hate that word. We’re not Mexican.”
“I’m not Salvadoran either, what’s your point?”
“Pinche is a Mexican word.”
“Y qué? I don’t tell you how to speak English. You can say ‘bloody hell’ like Harry Potter for all I care.”
In the end, I knew that this conversation simply couldn’t have a happy ending, and so I just walked away muttering, “… pinche tonterías…”