Category Archives: learning Spanish

Pepenar, Pepenando (to scavenge, scavenging)



CA, Mex

transitive verb
: to scavenge, to scrounge

Yesterday we saw a niece and her family in the back of their pickup, and they told us they were going to pepenar in a nearby potato field that had recently been harvested. This morning at her house, she gave us some of the very good potatoes, most of them a bit nicked in the digging-up process. I popped them into my slow cooker when we left for the fields, and when we got back around 7 p.m., they were just perfect! 

Supper tonight will be smooth white potatoes with sour cream, maybe a little butter, some onion tops (no chives around here), and some of the good cheese we have, with steamed zucchini. Soon.

But right now we’re still drinking lots of water. It’s been so hot lately!


I love the pointillistic effect of a Blackberry in poor light!

We have been here in Mexico off and on for over a year, and I thought a general examination might be in order.
I am happy here. There is really nothing I miss about California life., with the exception of a few wonderful people, and hot water. The bathing water that the family here calls “calientita” is really not even warmer than my skin.
My job as a high school choral teacher was stressful. Each year when I began the year I wished I was not aware of how much hard work was ahead of me. My work here is enjoyable. I like caring for our house. I never considered myself a good housekeeper, but the daily sweeping and mopping of floors is not unpleasant. The frequency means that there really isn’t a lot of dirt. It’s quick and everything smells good afterwards. I’m trying to enjoy dusting as well.
I still don’t cook here – Chon’s sister does that. Since I like to cook, that has been a minus, but still, there is a definite ease of life when you only have to heat up food when it’s dinner time. After we return from Los Angeles we are going to refresh the kitchen with new tile floors and paint, and we intend to do our own cooking when that is finished; we are sending the small stove (with NO oven) to Chon’s sister’s house, and starting with our own electric oven that has been languishing in the patio (it’s 220 v, and, well, nobody has 220 here) or a new gas stove /oven. But maybe I’m getting ahead of myself here. In a check-up do you get to include future plans?
I don’t have many friends, but I think that might change when I am more fluent in Spanish. And about that – it is slowly becoming more easy to have conversations, although I have occasional brain farts when I can’t remember very common words. Maybe that will never change – happens in English, too!
Since inquiring minds want to know, food and household items are LOTS lower in price than in the US. Medicines are rather expensive, but the doctor care I have experienced is efficient,excdellent, and inexpensive. For most people here, it seems expensive, but compared to the California health care I am familiar with, it’s very low-cost. A doctor’s visit is less than $40. A brief, efficient, and very state-of-the-art hospital visit for Chon’s sister to remove gall-stones was completed in about three hours, and cost about $1,500. Really.
Food/groceries are good, and inexpensive.
Mattresses cost about a third of what they cost in the US.

We harvested our fields last month, and made about a 50% return on our investment in seed, tractor work, and labor, and we are opening a savings account to keep the money we made for next year’s farming expenses (it costs a lot to plant and fertilize).
Our garden was a success, but will be much better next year. We were casual in our seeding, and the result was overcrowding. We got a great harvest of zucchini (and lots and lots memorable meals with zucchini flowers). The poblano chile plants, now freed from the shade of the sprawling tomato plants, have now set on tiny chiles. if we don’t get a killing frost, who knows! Chiles in January?
Here in central Mexico the weather is temperate. That doesn’t mean that it is warm all the time. Lately it has been quite chilly, with temperatures dipping well into the 30’s some nights. When we brought clothing here, I was told to bring sweaters. Now in December, I’m glad that I did.
We created some space – a new bedroom and bathroom for Chon’s mother (the old bath is outdoors and down a step, making it difficult for her to navigate). 
We have a new studio for practice and recording. And a stage on top of our garage, for performances. (Years ago we began a tradition of performing for the town. Come see us on New Year’s Eve!)

Does he look like a guitar god?


We finally got the registration papers for our large truck. We use it mostly for band equipment. It took months to get this task done.  There are a bewildering number of laws and rules about importing  cars to Mexico. The truck qualified, but it evidently had some customization that was difficult to explain, or get cleared, or – something. Now, though, it is legal, and has Mexican license plates. 
We have driven many, many miles without trouble. When you cross state lines, however, you may well be stopped by federales, local police, or soldiers. We had an unpleasant experience in Nayarit when federales inspected our PT Cruiser and announced that they had found a marijuana seed in the back. They were insulting and a little scary while they kept us there for about half an hour. They pretended to be insulted when Chon offered to pay them for their trouble, but one of them took some large bills from the travel money we had with us.
Another time when we were stopped by some troops the young soldiers were very happy to accept a mordida although they took it hurriedly so that their superior officer did not see them; probably they didn’t want to share!
Driving here is – different. In general, the rules and laws are the same as the ones we all know and love. But the signs are different, and I don’t mean because they are in Spanish. They are placed differently; not regularized in placement, or color, or lettering. Sometimes you must make a turn before a sign, and sometimes quite a way after the sign. It can be a challenge to find signs for street names. Glorietas (or round-abouts) are a little scary at first, but then they begin to make sense. Just keep to the center of the circle if you are going all the way around, and to the outside lane if you are going to turn right. Many large cities have removed glorietas and replaced them with signal lights.
I can’t give myself a high mark in this, but it is improving. Here’s an example: if I were at my home in California and a visitor was seated on my couch, I would go sit next to them to show I was happy they were there, and that I wanted to visit and be sociable. Here, in Mexico though, if someone is visiting and I go to sit with them, in a few minutes they get up and go. A territorial thing? (Sometimes useful!)
I think this was quite random, but that’s what I can think of right now for my checkup, and I’m just going to quit.

The Radio

Not every house has a TV, but it seems like just about everyone has a radio.  
Doña Elena next door has a radio that she turns on around  6:30 a.m.  Because of the design of her kitchen, the sound is amplified and is easily heard on the street, for the morning sweeping ritual. She turns it off at 8 because the progamming changes from the rancheras that she likes, to a different style. In fact, when the programming changes to “banda”, she ruthlessly turns off the radio mid-phrase. Doña Elena has a favorite song, Que Me Lleve El Diablo, and whenever it is played, she sings – very loudly, and tunelessly – in her yard.

The radio stations in Mexico are of different types, just like in the US.  There are stations that play modern pop, some that play banda music (imagine a German tuba band playing music in Spanish), rap and dance music, cumbias and other Latin dance music, mariachi music, talk stations (mostly pro-goverment), etc.  The  style of music that I most like to hear  on the  radio is ranchera.  There are beautiful songs and some very good voices, from the forties and later.  Another wonderful genre is trio music from the forties and fifties.  The songs are very much like what are called standards in the US, with gorgeous extended harmonies. They are composed and performed by male trios with very, very  good guitar playing.

The sixties and seventies in Mexico produced excellent pop music. Much of it originated in the States. Imagine hearing, in Spanish, Twist and Shout, Going To The Chapel,  Tan Shoes With Pink Shoelaces, The Name Game, With Just A Hundred Pounds Of Flesh, I’ll Do My Crying In The Rain, Won’t You Be My Baby!  I recently heard Neal Sedaka sing in Spanish Next Door To An Angel! Many excellent songs were written during these years in Mexico, Spain and other Latin American countries, as well as Italy.

There were many good Mexican actors and actresses, too, from that era, some of whom came to the US to make films.  (Dolores Del Rio, Anthony Quinn, and El Indio Fernandez are some that are known in the US.)

After Doña Elena turns off her radio, we turn ours on, and at about 8:20 every day there is a dramatic serial called Porfirio Cadena – El Ojo De Vidrio, from the fifties.  Imagine the announcer with lots of echo and effect introducing the program.  The story is described as “violent, audacious, etc.” It is an episodic story about a (in)famous (imaginary) bandit.  He is called El Ojo De Vidrio because he has a glass eye.  His entire family was killed by a traitorous acquaintances when he was a child.  He saw the killings, and afterwards the killers tortured him by cutting out his eye with a sharp branch.  Porfirio  lives to take his revenge on his powerful enemies, and accumulates an enormous treasure. The character seems to soften as he ages, but when he is young, and beginning his career as an outlaw, he is cruel and violent, although fair, wreaking his own concept of justice.

At night, at 10:30 p.m. the same station plays another serial adventure called Caliman, El Hombre Increible, the incredible man. The current story is called The Black Widow.

The voices of the actors are quite dramatic, typical of the fifties,  and both serials are very entertaining.  The sound effects and the incidental music are wonderful. After each episode ends we speculate about how Porforio or Caliman will escape from his most recent capture or predicament, and what is happening with the other characters.

There are annoying commercials, just like on the radio stations in the US.  I particularly dislike hearing childrens’ voices say “Wow!” and continue in Spanish. The government touts itself in endless commercials, bragging about “transparency”, “equality” and “fairness”.  There are many ads for drug stores, and for natural health products, which are very popular here.

What I Know Now That I Didn’t Know Then

Random thoughts and comments about learning Spanish as an adult:
Now I know how to say it doesn’t fit, “No cave,” and it didn’t fit, “No cupo”.

I noticed a connection between the old-timey English word “hoosegow” that my grandpa used to say. “They threw him in the hoosegow”. and the often-used Spanish word “juzgado” (often pronounced – you guessed it –  a lot like “hoosegow.”)

Lots of people say “Si, verdad?” when they are agreeing with you. Only they pronounce it “Si, verda?” The worker we hired to spray weeds and spread fertilizer in our fileds hardly moves his upper lip when he talks, so he says “Si, eda?” And sometimes just “Da?”

You can get through many conversations by using “Si, verdad?” or  “E,” (meaning you agree), or “Asi es”. Nobody wants to hear your opinions much, anyway. And it’s polite to just agree even if you don’t. I find that custom extremely interesting, and rather difficult to perform.

There are quite a few words that many people know here that are not in the dictionary. There is a bird here called “tutubisi’”. It looks a little like a mockingbird, and it lives in the trees around the farmland.  It must be some kind of flycatcher. There is a frightening, quite large black wasp-like creature  that people here call a Juan Sanchez. Their stings can feel worse than scorpion stings, they say.

I knew that maiz was corn. And people talked about “sorgo” or sorghum. But I didn’t know that “maiz nilo” was the same as “sorgo”. Maiz nilo – cornes from Egypt – the Nile. Sorghum. Sorgo. Miaz Nilo. I had a big “aha,” moment about that.
Everyday Spanish uses a verb form that English speakers have mostly dropped.  It is common now to hear people say “If I was going to be here,” “If I was you,” etc., although I’m sure high school and college English teachers struggle to correct and educate their students.

Anyway, in Mexico I hear even children using the subjunctive mood “If I had done this…”. It is used to express doubt, uncertainty, and judgement. “I want,”, I hope”, “it’s probable that”. At least I can hear it now, even though I probably (there’s a subjunctive mood right there!) will not use it correctly myself for some time.

Learning Spanish As An Adult

I admit it – I have been learning Spanish for about 25  years, although I was never truly focused on that goal until recently (necessity being a strong motivator). 

And I’ll explain here a sort of pet peeve. Beginning of soapbox: I think it’s an odd way to discuss learning languages by using the term “my” French, or “my” Japanese. I’m quite sure I used that term before, (when I was but a child!) but now it seems annoying to me to describe a language as belonging to you when what you are really discussing is your fluency and skills. 
I also feel strongly that if a person chooses to live in a country with a different national language, he or she should strive to learn the language. The citizens of the US practically demand it of immigrants, and in Mexico, I have noticed that people in general really appreciate it when I try to converse with them, even though I make lots and lots of mistakes. Lots! End of soapbox.
Somehow I thought that I would wait, silently learning, until I could speak nearly perfectly to start trying. That is not a satisfactory method of learning. (Duh! As a teacher, I surely should have known better!) Now I just jump in, and I probably make one or more mistakes in every other sentence. Everything is different – the sounds, and the word order: nouns have genders in Spanish, too.
Anyway, I began to learn Spanish, I would have to say, from singing songs in Spanish – and, by the way, it was hard for me to believe that so much music had been so completely unknown to me. There was an entire repertoire of popular music in Spanish that I was completely unaware of! I had heard two popular Spanish songs in the seventies that made a deep impression on me. I even remember where I was when I first heard them. 
Beginning of ramble:
The first of the two songs was performed by a singer named Jose Jose (although I didn’t know his name at the time). It was called La Barca Del Olvido. One reason I think I liked it so much was that I could understand a lot of the chorus, probably from singing in Italian. The chorus lyrics begin 
Espera un poco, un poquito mas,
Para llevarte mi felicidad.
and I would say that means
Wait a little, just a little more,
To take away my happiness.
The memorable part of the chorus employs a musical device called melodic sequence, the repetition of a melodic phrase at different levels of pitch. 
The other song was by a group called Mocedades, from Spain. It is a very beautiful, famous, meaningful love song, and won a world-level prize in a songwriting competition. Its title is Eres Tu, and it is still very well-known. The beginning of the chorus, roughly translated, is
You are like the water in my fountain,
You are the flame in my hearth,
You are the wheat in m y bread,
Hmm – it’s so much more beautiful in Spanish!! No wonder I’ve never heard an English translation!
End of rambling aside.
I began to sing and perform songs in Spanish in the mid-eighties. From my traditional music training I knew that it was essential not just to sing the sounds of the language, but to understand them, and I translated every word, with Chon’s patient help. I learned and performed many songs. 
But the first time I visited Mexico I didn’t understand anything at all. I could speak “food” pretty well, with reasonably good pronunciation, and that was it. In our house Chon and I only spoke English, so I really never praticed speaking Spanish unless I was in Mexico, and that was only for one, two, or three weeks every year. I tried, though, and Chon’s family was patient, too. They didn’t have much choice, really, and they always treated me extremely well. There are very few people in our little town even now who speak English. And something I have noticed is that even though students here take classes in English, they do not learn to speak it. There seems to be no “Conversational English” offered. Even students who get high grades in English only can read it (a little).
In case you have never thought about it, an English speaker must learn to use different muscles to correctly pronounce Spanish, so for many English speakers our speech will always have a big, fat accent, and we sound to Spanish speakers just as many adults who learn English sound to us English speakers. (Congratulations if you were able to follow that sentence!)
Anyway, I’d like to encourage anyone to learn a new language. If it interests you, or if you are motivated for some reason, give it a try! There are lots of good classes in the states. If you learn some beginning Spanish, your hispanic friends will enjoy your efforts, and it’s probably really good exercise for the brain.