Sunday, August 28, 2016

MICRONESIA: THE FOOD (with update!)

It was an interesting past week. I finally made it out of training and onto the floor with my new team at work. I’m for reals now. And I’m getting my son signed up for Boy Scouts, so maybe he’ll learn more than how to play video games. And we’re finally getting some work done on the other house, so hopefully we’ll be moved in next year sometime. I’ll finally get my red house I’ve always wanted. Just like the Jimi Hendrix song. So, it’s definitely been an interesting couple of weeks with some wild weather to go with it! 

Mmm... Who knew beer and soy sauce went together so well?
But the 90-degree weather with torrential downpours only gets me into the mood for cooking food from Micronesia (written as I keep one eye to the sky as it gets darker and the thunder rumbles). Today, I started out with Micronesian chicken. I made my marinade first: one 12 oz can of beer (I went with Taxman Brewery’s Gold Standard), 4 oz of soy sauce, some chopped onion, and some minced garlic. Then I took my chicken breasts, butterflied them, and squeezed lemon over each side before putting them into the marinade for at least three hours. The directions recommended grilling them, but it was too stormy today. So, I sautéed them in a skillet, spooning some marinade over each side before flipping them. I kept the lid on, which helped keep the chicken very tender. This, my friends, was so super awesome. You can definitely tell the beer flavoring (the Gold Standard turned out to be very good for this marinade), and the tenderness made it easy to eat. This is definitely a recipe to repeat. 

Although not a sorbet, who doesn't love a good banana smoothie?

Then I made Pohnpeian Karat Banana Sorbet. I don’t know what a karat banana is exactly (it’s probably something I’d have a hard time finding here anyway), but I do have plenty of “plain old regular” bananas. (And I finally bought a blender just so I could make this!) I expanded the recipe from one serving to four servings. I put in four bananas, ½ c of simple syrup, ¾ c of coconut milk, 2 tsp of cinnamon, and some crushed ice. I blended this altogether and put it in the freezer for an hour or so. I took it out and blended it for another 30 seconds. I thought this was supposed to be the consistency of ice cream, but I think I needed to keep it in the freezer a lot longer than an hour, especially since I quadrupled my recipe. It was more like a slightly frozen smoothie. Still good, though. It was a hit with everyone. I may try this again and keep it in the freezer longer to see what it tastes like as an actual sorbet. 

This little dude was waiting for some siu pao.

And finally, the dish that counted as my bread: siu pao. First of all, I didn’t read the recipe all the way through, so it forced me to have to improvise a bit. I started with making the dough: I mixed together 6 c of flour, ¾ c of sugar, 3 packets of yeast (that I forgot to proof in 1 c of warm water), followed by 5 eggs. I stirred it all together, but it just wasn’t coming together (hmm, could it be that 1 c of water I was missing?). I ended up adding about 6 oz of coconut milk to it and several Tbsp of olive oil to help bind it all together. I finally got it to form a ball, and I covered it to rest for an hour. While it was resting, I hardboiled three eggs and sliced each into eighths when they were cool. In a skillet, I sautéed some minced garlic and diced onions together before adding in my diced pork. After it had browned a bit, I added in some soy sauce, a little water, sugar, and black pepper, stirring to coat all of the pork. Then I took some of the dough, formed a ball and flattened it out to about a 4” circle, put some of the pork inside along with some of the sliced egg. I wrapped it all around and pinched it shut. Now came the hard part: steaming them. I don’t own a double boiler yet, so I had to improvise (again). I had a pot of boiling water, but my original idea of using a mesh basket worked great until part of the plastic evidently couldn’t handle the heat and melted a little. (Why must things be so difficult??) So, I used a metal colander instead, and it did the job. But it took about a half hour to steam them. However, they were really good, even though I made them a little on the large side – it was far more dumpling than filling. I liked them, and I think overall, everyone else did too. I especially liked the flavor of the pork and egg together. 

Overall, this was a really good meal. And I'm sure people will be jealous of my lunch tomorrow. (Ok, maybe.)
I pulled another recipe for some fish tapioca cakes with sweet sauce, but I was too tired to make it. I might make it this week, though, since I have all the ingredients. When I choose recipes, I often pull a whole bunch, but then narrow it down. I typically try to pick at least a bread, a main entrée, and a side dish. It doesn’t always happen that way. Sometimes I pick a drink or a dessert to go along with it. And it also depends on my schedule and how realistic my expectations are at what I can accomplish in an afternoon. And then I run into issues like today: for some reason, I didn’t pick any recipe with a vegetable in it. So I pulled out a bag of steamable edamame to go with it. I guess if today had a theme, it would be “improvisation.” And that, my friends, is the story of my life. 

So, I finally made that last dish that I didn't get to: Fish Tapioca Cakes with Sweet Sauce. I definitely amended the recipe, but I thought it turned out well. The family, not so much. Here's what I did: I thawed and cooked my fish (I chose tilapia), breaking it up into a hundred pieces as it cooked. Then I mixed together the cooked fish, some green onions, a can of sweet potatoes (instead of diced pumpkin), an egg, salt, pepper, and a little lime juice. I mashed everything together with a potato masher. Then I took a 1/2 c of tapioca flour and mixed it into the bowl as well, stirring enough to make sure it got all worked in. (The recipe may not have been referring to tapioca flour and doing it this way, but that's what I had on hand.) Once everything was mixed, I sprayed some coconut oil in a hot skillet and spooned out the mixture and flattened it into patties. To make the sweet sauce, I poured some ketchup, water, sugar, lime juice, salt, garlic, and a little tapioca flour (in lieu of cornstarch) into a small bowl. I mixed it together and poured it on top of the pancakes. The sauce was supposed to be cooked down, but it was such little amounts, that I didn't think it was necessary. I liked it, and from what I gathered, everyone else did too, but they had a problem with the consistency. Oh, well. To each his own, and more for me. 

Up next: Moldova


Micronesian music in general is largely based on vocal music. And the music from Federated States of Micronesia encompasses much of these traditions as well. There are a number of other instruments utilized, but vocals seem to be the main part. A few of the traditional instruments heard in their music include the conch shell horns, sticks, and a few drum-like percussion instruments. But really, their vocal music is the dominating factor here, especially coming in the form of chants. 

Much of their music is based on mythology and ancient rituals, so its no surprise an ancient myth says that music comes from trances and dreams rather than music theory and composition. Traditional music comes in a variety of styles, and because there isn’t a written language (they use Roman letters now, but originally there wasn’t), these traditions are passed down from generation to generation. 

Although the islands on a whole share cultural ties, each island has their own variations when it comes to dancing. There are two main types of dances: standing dances and sitting dances. One of the variations these dances have are divided upon are who the performers are. Some islands have dances where men, women, and children all perform together, but others are only for men or only for women. Stick dances are an important part of Micronesian culture. They are especially popular on Chuuk, Yap, and Pohnpei. The island of Yap has a particularly strong dance heritage. One rare dance is the Moonlight Dance from the island of Chuuk. One reason it’s rare is that both men and women dance together, and it only happens during a full moon if the village chief gives permission to do so. It was used as a way for young people to meet. Apparently, it’s important to meet, but not that often. Like a staff meeting or paying bills or something. 

There were a few bands I found on Spotify, but I found others on YouTube. With influences from European, Asian, and American music, much of their music today reflects these global changes on their music and culture. For one, they tend to use modern instruments and styles in their popular music. Styles like reggae, rock, and hip-hop have seeped into their musical styles, still maintaining a definite Micronesian flair. I did find several reggae artists on Spotify. I was never really sure if my searches were drawing artists from the Federated States of Micronesia or the region of Micronesia. Regardless, I tried my best and I’m sure they’re listened to in the FSM. The first one I listened to is Chiko. He sang in a mix of English and whatever his native language is. I kind of liked it, even though the quality of the recording wasn’t the greatest, which is kind of rare for Spotify. It sounded like the copies you sometimes got when CD burners were still new: that sort of buzzing, cracking, or popping that sometimes happened on top of the music when you burned CDs.

Another artist I liked was Ozeky. Apparently, he’s pretty popular, and I can see why. Most of his music was a chill reggae style of music. From what I can tell, he also switches between singing in English and singing in Chuukese. 

The problem with some of these searches that I ran into, especially on Spotify, was that I wasn’t sure I was actually pulling up the right artists. I looked up a band called Vroom Vroom, but the music almost sounded like early MIDI files or music used in early video games. I mean, that could be how they actually sound. I don’t know. It could also be a bad cover of their music, or just some music from another group or album called Vroom Vroom. Who knows? 

I also listened to a rapper called F.O.S. There were just singles listed on Spotify, but a few of them were hip-hop and a few were electronica. So, I’m not exactly sure what the deal is. Don’t get me wrong, I liked what I heard, but I questioned whether he does both styles or what exactly is going on here. It’s cool either way. Maybe I shouldn’t ask so many questions and just enjoy the music. But it does turn out that I think he's British, but I'm not sure if he has ties to the islands or not. Still, I like this song. 

One band I came across that was mentioned over and over again on some forum asking about the top five Micronesian bands was ReChuuk. I found a bunch of videos on YouTube. They’re a little bit island reggae with a little bit of rock subtly mixed in at time. I’m guessing the language they sing in is Chuukese, just based on the name of the band. 

Relinda is another Chuukese musician. Her music is steeped in reggae but has more of a pop sound. I also saw Danny mentioned as another favorite Chuukese musician. I’m sure there are many more musicians from FSM out there. These are a just a few.

Up next: the food!

Wednesday, August 24, 2016


As far as the culture of the Federated States of Micronesia goes, there are many similarities between the Micronesians and many of their neighbors in this remote corner of the world. It seems that certain arts are generally divided between the men and the women. The men are quite skilled at carving, and Micronesian carving art is a broad art form that encompasses many items. Woodcarving is by far the most common, but I think shell and stone carving are also present as well. Some items are small, like figurines, bowls, and canoe ornaments, but other items can be quite large like ceremonial houses. Women, on the other hand, tend to dominate textiles and jewelry such as headbands, necklaces, and bracelets. Micronesians are incredibly resourceful people. The materials they utilize for their art pretty much comes from what they readily have available to them naturally. 

One particular art form I came across is weather charms called hos from the island of Yap. These charms protected people against bad storms. It’s believed that the charms are tied to the god of water spirits, Yalulawei. So, whenever a group of people head out for a voyage, they would chant to Yalulawei in hopes of calm seas. 

Hos from Yap
Once their culture came in contact with the Europeans and the Japanese, it changed, as it naturally would. Some art forms continued with some outside cultural influences (like weaving and some architectural aspects), but others stopped being created altogether (certain sculpting arts). Once Micronesia gained its independence, an interest in their cultural arts surged, and people began teaching these arts again. It’s a good thing there was an artistic revival because once its gone, and there are no more elderly to teach the skills and techniques, even art can suffer the dire threat of becoming extinct. It’s an important aspect of your cultural identity, no matter what that cultural identity is. 

Today, there is also a small number of artists who are skilled in contemporary arts as well. Although I’ve seen several mentions of contemporary artists hailing from Micronesia, I have not come across any particular person’s name. So, I’m thinking that these artists are only known locally and have not made it onto the international scene. Perhaps someone should fly me to Micronesia so I can write articles on their art so their names can be published. (Hint, hint…) 
Emelihter Kihleng
Unfortunately, there just hasn’t been that much literature written and published by Micronesian authors either. In 2008, Emelihter Kihleng, was one of the first Micronesians to publish a collection of poetry in the English language. She joined a professor from the University of Guam in the large project of creating a compilation of literature from the Micronesian islands. The literature from other island groups (notably Melanesia and Polynesia) is far more familiar, but not much of the works and stories from Micronesia have been published. Thankfully to their hard work, there is now.

Another notable writer from Pohnpei is the historian Luelen Bernart. He’s not only Pohnpei’s first historian but the first person to publish a book there as well. When he was born, the Spanish still occupied the islands, and he died just after the end of WWII. You can imagine the changes he’s seen. He is the author of The Book of Luelen, originally written in Pohnpeian and also translated into English. I think it would be interesting to read. I did find out that it’s out of print, but there’s some more information on the book here.

Up next: music and dance

Sunday, August 21, 2016


When I was a kid growing up in the 1980s, I was fascinated by this world atlas book my mom had. It not only showed regions of countries but it gave an overview of the area with some basic stats. It also had wonderful photos of each area with captions. I must’ve read it a million times. I distinctly remember looking at the Federated States of Micronesia and being in awe of the world’s newest country. I was six years old at the time, and now thirty years later, I’m finally coming around to Micronesia again.

The country called Federated States of Micronesia is named after the region of Micronesia. Micronesia, from the Greek words meaning small (mikrós) and islands (nêsos), was most notably called by this name by the French explorer Jules Dumont d’Urville in 1832 (it was probably called this by others before him, but alas, d’Urville has taken all the credit). The region of Micronesia consists of several island groups and nations including the countries of Federated States of Micronesia, Marshall Islands, Kiribati, Palau, Nauru, Wake Island, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands (the last three being US territories). To make matters more confusing, the country of the Federated States of Micronesia are often just shortened to Micronesia (and from this point forward, when I use the term Micronesia, I’m referring to the country unless otherwise specified). Now you can impress your friends by telling them all about the difference between the REGION of Micronesia and the COUNTRY of (the Federated States of) Micronesia. 

The islands of Micronesia are located in the South Pacific just west of the Marshall Islands, northwest of Nauru, northeast of Papua New Guinea, and southeast of Guam and the Northern Marianas. The country consists of 607 islands divided into four states: Yap, Chuuk, Pohnpei (not to be confused with the ancient Italian city of Pompeii that was destroyed by the volcano Mt. Vesuvius), and Kosrae. The islands itself can range from mountainous to low coral atolls. Because these islands are in the South Pacific, they enjoy a tropical climate. They do experience heavy rainfall pretty much all year long, especially the farther east you go. They’re also likely to be hit by typhoons since they’re located along the edge of the typhoon belt (I didn’t even know this is a thing—I guess it’s the equivalent to tornado alley). 

People started moving into this group of islands about four thousand years ago. Early cultures centered around the island of Yap, on the western part of the chain. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to arrive, followed by the Spanish, who included these islands as part of their holdings in the area. The Spanish sold the islands to Germany at the end of the 19th century, which they included as part of their German New Guinea. Japan took it over during WWII; the Japanese fleet was based in the Truk Lagoon, the site of a major battle that destroyed many of the Japanese naval vessels. However, Japan was forced to relinquish the islands as a South Pacific Mandate after the war. The US administered the islands in 1947 as a Trust Territory through the United Nations. In 1979, four of the states decided to band together to form the Federated States of Micronesia, and the Marshall Islands, Northern Marianas, and Palau chose not to join. In 1986, they officially gained their independence. The Trusteeship officially ended in 1990, but they continue to have a free association with the United States. 

The capital city of Palikir is located on the island of Pohnpei. It’s about 6 miles from the city of Kolonia, Pohnpei’s largest city and capital of the state of Pohnpei. Both cities are located on the northwest coast of the island. The city is the center for commerce and the government. There are several artificial islands nearby called Nan Madol and nicknamed “the Venice of the Pacific.” It’s the site of the 1000-yr old ruins of an ancient city, a network of roughly 100 artificial islets made of stone and coral. Palikir is also a popular spot for surfing, diving, and snorkeling. 

Micronesia depends mostly on farming and fishing, especially tuna. It’s not strong in mining, except perhaps for high-grade phosphate. They do have a sizeable tourism industry, and they also highly depend upon financial assistance from the US. Because of its dependence and ties to the US, US currency is used in Micronesia. They are also known for having the largest coins in the history of the world: the Rai stone looks kind of like a large stone doughnut. The largest is about 12’ by 1.5’ and weighs roughly 8800 lbs. Because they’re too large to move (obviously), it’s basically just verbally transferring ownership to the next person. 

The majority of the population is Roman Catholic. There is also a sizable Protestant population as well, and the percentages definitely depend on the island where some are more than others. There are also a small number of Buddhists (probably left over from the Japanese occupation) and some Baha’i as well. 

English is the official language of Micronesia. However, there are several other indigenous languages that are also spoken here as well. Each island has its own language (although I’m not sure of how mutually intelligible each language is): Chuukese (spoken on Chuuk, Pohnpei, and Guam), Kosraean (spoken on Kosrae, Nauru, and Caroline Islands), Pohnpeian (spoken on Pohnpei and the Caroline Islands), and Yapese (spoken on Yap). 

Nan Madol
I knew from looking at a map that these islands were small, but I read that in total, they only equal 271 sq mi (almost the same land area as the city of Lexington, KY). But to get a better sense of how spread out these islands are, these 607 islands are spread across a little over a million sq mi of water! Another thing I learned is that each state does its own customs, so if you are island hopping, you can pretty much expect the same level of scrutiny in each main island. However, the weather is generally nice all year long, and there are practically no tropical diseases. I’m already wondering if my job would let me work from home from Palikir?? Probably not.

Up next: art and literature

Sunday, August 14, 2016


Man, it’s been hot this week. Not like it’s been any different than any other day this summer. I think we’ve only had a handful of days where it was below 90ºF since the beginning of June. I took the kids to a baseball game last week and got sunburnt really bad, and now it’s peeling. Lovely. Otherwise, school is going well for the kids so far, and the job is coming along. But without further ado, I know the kids were pretty excited about Mexican food. As am I. 

This was the best. I love this so much. Next time, I might use more butter in the topping to see if it'll work better.

However, this meal came at one caveat: this is not a Taco Bell meal. No tacos, no burritos, no enchiladas, no chips and salsa. I wanted something more authentic. So, the first thing I started with was the bread: conchas. The first thing I did was stir in my yeast packet into ½ c warm water. Then I mixed in ½ c of evaporated milk, 3/8 c of sugar, 1/3 c melted butter, 1 tsp salt, 1 egg, and 2 c flour. After I mixed all this together, I slowly added in another 2 c of flour with a ½ tsp cinnamon. When it all came together, I kneaded it for 5 minutes or so until it became a soft dough. I greased the bowl and placed the dough in the bowl, covering it with some cheesecloth and letting it rest in a warm place for about an hour. While it was resting, I made the topping for it. In another bowl, I creamed together 2/3 c sugar and ½ c butter until it was light and fluffy. There’s no feeling like the feeling of squishing cold butter into sugar. Then I stirred in 1 c of flour until it was closer to a thick paste-like consistency. Then I divided this into two parts: mixing in 2 tsp cinnamon into one and 1 tsp vanilla extract into the other. The problem is that it got very dry. I tried adding in a few drops of the evaporated milk into it, but it didn’t really do what I wanted, so I had to add a little flour back in. It was quite a mess. Once the dough was finished resting, I divided it into 12 pieces. I shaped each piece into balls and placed them on a cookie sheet with enough room between them. Then I divided each topping part into six balls each, flattening each topping ball into a disk and wrapping it over the dough ball. After I pressed it down slightly, I took a knife and cut scallop-like or clamshell-like shapes into the top, which was way easier said than done. Or you could do spirals. It’s kind of up to you. I covered these and left these to rise for another 45 minutes. Setting my oven for 375ºF, I baked these for 20 minutes or until they were golden brown. Although they didn’t look as pretty as I imagined (since the topping part was so dry), they did taste good, though. I still don’t think I got my butter and sugar creamed well enough, and that may have been part of the problem. But otherwise, these were rather tasty.

Oh, I don't know. I think this may be the best. Clearly one of my new favorite things.

The next thing I made was a soup called posole (I’ve also seen it spelled pozole). I took all my poblano peppers and put them on a baking sheet and placed them in an oven and roasted them at 425ºF for about 20 minutes or so. (The skin should be starting to blister and char.) I saved eight peppers for the next recipe and used the biggest one for this recipe. Once I took them out, I wrapped them in plastic wrap to help them steam while they cool. After this, I took one pepper and discarded the skin and chopped up the rest of it (saving the others for later). After setting this to the side, I fried up my bacon and put it on a paper towel on a plate to drain.  Then I put my cubed pork (I used pork loin cutlets) in the same skillet I just fried my bacon in and browned my pork in the bacon grease. After it was browned, I removed the pork and sautéed my onion and garlic until my onion was soft and started turning brown. Then I added in my diced poblano chiles, some diced jalapeño peppers, oregano, cumin, chile powder, cloves, salt, and cilantro, letting it sauté for a minute. Then I transferred this to a larger pot and let it heat up a minute before I added in my chicken stock (I used two of the 32 oz boxes) along with some mild red enchilada sauce. After stirring, I added in my crumbled bacon and diced pork let it simmer for about 30 minutes before adding in two large cans of hominy. I continued to let this simmer for nearly an hour. This, my friends, was so completely awesome that I’m having trouble putting words together to describe it. If I had been served this as a kid, I wouldn’t have avoided hominy with such a fervent passion for so many decades. I love the flavor of the pork cooked in bacon grease – it added so much to it. I loved everything about this.

For some stupid reason, my photo of poblano chile rellenos won't load, so here's a photo from that looks very similar to how mine turned out, except I had salsa on top of mine.

And now for my other recipe: Poblano Chile Rellenos. Since I already roasted my peppers earlier and wrapped them, it’s now time to remove their skins. One suggestion was to run them under cold water and peel the skin off that way. Then I made a slit down one side of the pepper and removed all the seeds and any pepper guts. I chose to make my salsa at this time: I mixed together a large can of crushed tomatoes, some diced jalapeños, some minced garlic, a couple of scallions, a little olive oil, red wine vinegar, a little oregano, cilantro, and salt and pepper. In a separate bowl, I prepared the stuffing by mixing together the cheese with the spinach; then I put enough mixture into each pepper to fill it while still making sure the pepper can still close. Now it comes time to make the beer batter. I separated my eggs (egg whites went into a smaller separate bowl, while my egg yolks went into the batter bowl). In the bowl with the egg yolk, I also mixed in salt, flour, and beer (I used Dos Equis) and stirred this together. Then I went back and whisked the egg yolks until they had stiff peaks, pouring this into the beer batter mix. The point is to try to keep as many of the bubbles as possible. I heated up some oil in my skillet, and after dipping my pepper into the batter, I laid it seamside down in the skillet. It’s supposed to fry for about 3-4 minutes on each side before taking it out to drain on a paper towel. These are then served topped with the salsa I made earlier. The kids weren’t so wild about these, but I really liked them. I had only had chile rellenos one time before this, but it was stuffed with a beef mixture. So, this was pretty tasty, and a great vegetarian recipe if you’re needing one. 

And of course, I can't find a recipe from 2 years ago of my rice pudding, so this is from ChowHound. This looks like mine, except I used golden raisins because I don't really like raisins all that much, except goldens.

And finally, an afterthought I’m amazed I remembered to add. A couple years ago when my daughter was in 3rd grade, her class was assigned Mexico for the Multicultural Fest. And somehow out of a moment of weakness, I volunteered to bring rice pudding. I doubled my recipe, but it was difficult to make. I burnt the bottom of my rice just a tad, and it’s amazing how that burnt rice flavor permeated throughout the entire pot. I tried adding more vanilla extract, and even though I ended up using all I had, it still tasted burnt. So, I added in some almond extract, too. It was better but I could still taste burnt rice. Alas, I was running on deadline. I had to take it in. In the end, her teacher said she absolutely loved it! Maybe she likes burnt rice, I don’t know. Maybe she was ust being nice. Most likely.

My beautiful, wonderful meal. It was everything I imagined it would be.

If I were to describe this meal, the words excelente, delicioso, and maravilloso come to mind. These are definitely recipes to repeat and ones that can be amended as well. I’ve learned a lot about Mexico, what Mexicans have accomplished, and more about their culture than what I already know (my pre-knowledge was probably more than other countries). Our cultures have merged so much, and now Mexicans and other Latinos now make up the largest minority group in this country. Almost everything is translated into Spanish and English. And Spanish immersion programs like where my kids go to school are becoming more popular. We absolutely love it and are glad our kids have the opportunity to go to school in such as diverse environment. But it scares me that we have a presidential candidate who incites ill feelings toward our Mexican friends (among many other groups of people). It’s definitely not the way to go. We’re better than that. I sincerely hope things get better on that front. But for now, I’ll just sit here with some posole, my Dos Equis, rocking out to Deorro, and dream of visiting Mexico one of these days.

Up next: Micronesia

Saturday, August 13, 2016


Mexico has a strong musical heritage, and many of their songs and genres have been widely influential in Latin music. There are some genres that are more widely known like cumbia and mariachi, but there are several other genres that originated from other parts of Latin America that developed its own variations in Mexico. Some of these include danzón, bolero, and others. 

Mexican son music is a dominant musical form. Typically written in major keys, it generally follows a I-IV-II7-V-V5 form in either triple or sometimes duple meter (I’m totally going to start writing something using these progressions). Son music uses some influences from Spanish music and mixes it with influences with indigenous music as well. It also typically uses an ensemble to perform. Each region of Mexico has its own variations in rhythm, chord progressions, style, and instruments.

Ranchera music has its roots in the Mexican Revolution, but later became associated with mariachi. Originally, it was performed by one performer with a guitar. Topics typically revolve around love, nature, or patriotism (probably stemming from the revolution). Corrido is another form that is pretty popular. This one, however, is more or less a ballad with the lyrics coming from poetry that tells a story. It tends to be reminiscent in nature, like old legends or stories about local heroes, but it can also be love stories or stories about socio-political topics. 

Guitars are heard in almost all Mexican son music as well as several other genres. Different variations utilize different combinations of instruments, but typically accordions, violins, and brass instruments (usually trumpets) are often common to all styles. Son Jarocho from the Veracruz region adds in harps. A mariachi band consists of a guitar, a violin, a trumpet, a guitarrón (like a large 6-string guitar), and a vihuela (like a smaller 5-string guitar). Banda Sinaloense is one group that relied on the tuba. 

There are several different kinds of dance from Mexico, but probably one of the most well known is called ballet folklórico. Ballet folklórico is kind of a catch-all term often used to refer to all kinds of folk dancing. Women typically wear multicolored skirts, which play an important part in the dance (what little girl doesn’t love twirling in a skirt?). Men usually wear black pants, a red belt, and a large black sombrero. That being said, each region has their own variations based on their own history and ethnic/cultural makeup. Folk dancing is often used as a way to promote Mexican culture, not only domestically but for Mexicans living abroad. The music accompanying this dance is typically mariachi music. In 1958, Amelia Hernandez created the first dance school aimed at teaching ballet folklórico in Mexico City, and it is still in business and performing today.

I came across soooooo many Mexican artists on Spotify, and I know I haven’t even began to touch the full scope of popular Mexican music. So, I’ll just name a few I sampled. I listened to quite a few albums in more of a traditional style, which made me think I was sitting in a Mexican restaurant. I actually kind of like some of what I heard; it was quite melodic and catchy. Actually, I could tell some of these songs were remakes of American songs, but rewritten in Spanish. Almost all of these songs were sung to guitars, strings, sometimes accordions, and at least a trumpet (and sometimes other brass). Some artists I listened to were Angelica Maria, Johnny Laboriel, Alberto Vazquez, and Enrique Guzman (which reminds me a little of Ritchie Valens, a Mexican-American known for his version of “La Bamba”). 

There were several groups I listened to that fell into the pop category. The group Timbiriche was pretty popular during the 1980s and 1990s. They had a pretty typical sound, not bad though. I liked what I heard from OV7. Definitely catchy. And of course, one of my all-time favorites: Paulina Rubio. (She actually was one of the original members of Timbiriche.) Probably my favorite song by her is either “Y Yo Sigo Aqui” or “Si Tu Te Vas.” And my other favorite Mexican pop singer is Thalia. I first heard her song “Tu Y Yo” on a mix CD someone made me once. Fey is another singer who falls strongly in this category, performing since the mid-1990s. She mixes in some dance and a little funk into her music at times. Zoé is good when you want to just chill. 

Of course, we can’t forget about Selena. Although she was from the US, her family was originally from Mexico. Her brother A.B. Quintanilla III not only performed solo, but he helped create the group Kumbia Kings (my favorite song is “Shhh”).  

Natalia Lafourcade has more of an acoustic, raw, outside-the-box, indie rock sound. It’s almost like she’s sort of Mexico’s version of Japan’s Bonnie Pink. (Kind of? No? Oh, well.) Alejandra Guzman definitely represents Rock en Español. I listened to her Best Of (Lo Mejor De) album, and I liked what I heard. I call her the Joan Jett of Mexico. She’s actually the daughter of Enrique Guzman (mentioned above). Marco Antonio Solís also mixes traditional elements in with his rock, like his use of brass instruments and certain melodic lines. El Tri is a pretty good rock band. I really liked their sound. They almost have a roadhouse blues sound to them on certain songs. Pretty much everyone knows Carlos Santana as one of the greatest guitar players in the world. I’ve been a fan of Maná for years. I found a copy of one of his CDs once when I was picking up stuff at a place I was working years ago, and it accidentally got mixed up with my personal stuff. So, I listened to it and was immediately hooked. The band Porter is pretty cool, too. 

Luis Miguel has more of a soul-rock sound to his music. Definitely a modern throwback kind of sound. Alejandro Fernandez also fuses mariachi, ranchera, and pop together. I bet he has good live performances. Gloria Trevi’s music has a very dramatic air to it. She also mixes elements of traditional music with a rock/pop flair. Fobia has kind of a pop-rock feel to their music. I like of like it, though. Their song “Me siento vivo” was also on that old mix CD. Santa Sabina has a unique sound to them. It’s almost like a cross between rock and electronic, but not really. Other songs are completely different. I always give dap to bands who do their own thing. Café Tacuba is another band that falls into this category. I really like their music. 


Described as a Latin ska band, the band Los de Abajo piques my interest. I want to listen to more from them. First of all, I’m a huge ska fan, and although this is different from the ska I typically think of, this is great music. AND, the lead singer is a female! Panteon Rococo and Tijuana No! are two other bands I’d list as a ska bands; both are pretty good. Molotov is a hard band to place – they are a little hip-hop, a little funk, a lot of rock. And yet I reeeeally like them. And Jumbo is great, too. 

Hocico is the closest thing to metal that I listened to, but it’s almost like electronica metal, if that’s a thing. However, if you are looking for electronic/dance music, try Deorro. He’s got some tight stuff. I’m going to make a playlist of just his stuff to listen to in the car. Mexican Institute of Sound is another electronic music project. It’s pretty cool. 

I didn’t do an exclusive search for hip-hop in Mexico (which I normally do), but I did run across Control Machete. They sort of sound a little like Cypress Hill (whose lead singer’s father is Mexican). Of course, there have been many Latin crossover groups from the US who have members who are of Latin and/or Hispanic heritage, like the group Ozomatli.

Up next: the food

Wednesday, August 10, 2016


Mexican art got its start with the Olmecs in the forms of jade art and jewelry, rock art, hieroglyphics, and sculptures. The Olmecs were particularly known for their giant stone heads. I’ve always wondered whether there was some ancient relationship between the Olmecs and West Africans. If you look at these stone heads, they feature large lips and wide noses, giving them a striking resemblance to African features. They also excelled at ceramics as well.  

As the Spanish arrived, they began building churches, and many of these early churches were examples of some great stonework. Aztec codices were also very common during this time as was the beginnings of various types of painting. Painting in this era was a mix of European styles with a definite Mexican quality to the subject matter. Religious and historical paintings dominated. 

During the mid-to-late 1700s, artists started to veer off into more secular art. One of the largest art academies was established during this time: the Academy of San Carlos, not only supporting painting arts but sculpture as well. After Mexico gained its independence, this academy also gained notoriety as the prestigious art school in Mexico, later renamed National Academy of San Carlos. There was still an intense reliance on European artistic styles during the mid-1800s, and many Europeans traveled to Mexico to study and teach. In fact, several English and German artists especially took residence in Mexico to pursue their arts. The late 19th and early 20th century brought along artists such as Pelegrí Clavé, Diego Rivera, and Saturnino Herrán. 

by Diego Rivera
The 20th century brought many changes in Mexican art. There were a lot of political changes going on which was reflected in their art. Mexican artists do not generally create art for art’s sake; it very much served a purpose. Most of their art is created to either make a political/social statement or evoke an emotion or describe a way of life. Throughout all of this, handicrafts were still being made and encouraged to do so. Mural painting is one particular type of art that has its roots all the way to Olmec and Mayan times. Even mural art is often riddled with political and social messages. Identity and history are also common themes seen on mural art. Other well known artists who have made significant contributions to 20th century Mexican art include Frida Kahlo (who is probably most famous for her unibrow), Rufino Tamayo, Manuel Felguerez, Dr. Atl, José Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and many others. 

Frida Kahlo and her unibrow
Mexico is one of the largest contributors to Spanish-language literature. Its literary history as we know it actually started during the colonial period, and there were a few writers of notoriety during that time, writing mostly in the Baroque styles. (Most pre-colonial writing dealt with histories and other topics.) Codices (stories or poems with elaborate illustrations) were a very common form of art and literature during this time. After Mexico gained its independence from Spain, an emergence of writers focusing on nationalism began to rise to prominence. 

The oldest newspaper in Mexico.
Writers working in Mexico generally followed the literary genres of Europe and America. The 19th century included quite a bit of political instability in Mexico, and the arts suffered for this too, including literature. Romanticism, modernism, realism, and positivism were a few of the literary movements that gained popularity during this time.

The Mexican Revolution helped create a new theme for writers. Many writers of the struggles of this time used this as a common backdrop for their novels and poetry. But a sense of nationalistic and journalistic writing also sprouted out of this conflict as well. These styles continued to flourish even in the aftermath of the revolution, but another type of literature also became prominent: indigenous literature. The original people and their lifestyles became the subject of many pieces of literature. Mexico entered into its Contemporary Literature era in 1947 with the publication of Agustín Yáñez’s novel Al filo del agua, introducing to the world a new era of Mexican literature. A number of foreign writers (including James Joyce, William Faulkner, Gabriel García Márquez, Franz Kafka, and John Dos Passos) were influenced by these works. 

Octavio Paz
One writer in particular, Octavio Paz, has been the only Mexican writer so far to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature (1990).  He is often considered one of the greatest poets of all time and most influential writers of the 20th century. Not only was he an accomplished writer, but he also worked as a diplomat as well, being assigned to New York, Paris, Switzerland, and India (he was later Mexico’s ambassador to India). Two of his most well known works are the poem Piedra de Sol and the long essay El laberinto de la soledad.

Up next: music and dance

Sunday, August 7, 2016


For obvious reasons, Mexico and the US have a special history and relationship. For me personally, I dated a guy from Oaxaca once a long time ago, and recently my husband and I have talked about what it takes to move to Mexico. Especially if Trump becomes “president.” Hey, at least there will be a wall separating us from him. But regardless of what people think about it, Mexicans are now becoming one of the largest immigrant groups to the US. In fact, both of my neighbors on either side of me are from Mexico, and they are great neighbors. So, while it tends to be a topic of discussion and sometimes vitriol, I really want to delve into the real Mexico and what it means to be Mexican. 

The name Mexico comes from the Nahuatl language. Nahuatl is the language of the Aztecs and sometimes referred to the Aztec language, especially in older books. In Nahuatl, Mexihco refers to the heartland of the Aztec Empire, sometimes called the Valley of Mexico and its people, the Mexica. There are a number of other theories and disputes by historians and linguists on the actual meaning of Mexihco and other possible origins of the name Mexico. 

Mexico is included as part of North America. It shares a long border with the United States to the north (following along the Rio Grande for much of the way). It also borders Guatemala and Belize in the south. It’s eastern side touches the Gulf of Mexico, and Cuba is not far from the city of Cancún on the Yucatan Peninsula. The Pacific Ocean lies to the west, along with a peninsula known as Baja California. Mexico has several mountain ranges that rise out of the landscape, and it also is the reason that Mexico has several active volcanos as well. The climate varies so much across the land: from the cooler, drier areas high in the mountains to the much warmer tropical rainforests of the Yucatan. 

One of the first civilizations in Mexico was the Olmecs. They are often seen as the predecessors to the Mayans, another major civilization spanning southern Mexico and Guatemala. They were responsible for the domestication of maize, beans, and tomatoes, which helped facilitate the transition to more of an agricultural-based society. The Olmecs were also known for their brutal ballgames and the Mayans were mostly known for their famous calendar, which was brought to everyone’s attention in 2012 (since it was “predicted” that would be the end of the world). The Aztecs came along a little later and became an important civilization not only in Mexico, but in much of North and South American history. “Aztec” actually refers to several different groups of people who generally lived in the same area. The Aztecs were mostly remembered for their sacrificial practices. They were also known for having to deal with the Spanish as they made their way across the land in order to conquer it. The famous Aztec king Montezuma fell to the hands of the Spanish, and the Spanish (unintentionally?) infected them with smallpox due to the fact that the Aztecs had no natural immunity to it. The Spanish moved in and took over their capital of Tenochtitlan, which eventually became the city of Mexico City. The country was later included in the Viceroyalty of New Spain, which also included many areas around the Caribbean, Central America, and other areas. Under Spanish rule, the face of Mexico would change. Europeans and native Mexicans would intermarry and create the mestizo class. In 1810, Mexico finally declared its independence from Spain. Like a lot of countries, their first decades were met with economic strife, which was partly the cause for the Pastry War (hmm, sounds like the loser gets a nasty raisin pie). Anyway, there were several wars and battles fought that led to gaining and losing land, including losing Texas to the US. The Mexican Revolution took place during the early days of the 20th century, and the country then spent pretty much the rest of the century under a one-party rule. The 2000 election changed all that when Vicente Fox won. Today, Mexico is a highly diverse and modern country.

Mexico City is a global city and a major financial and economic area in the Americas. With an urban area of roughly 20 million people, it’s about the same size as São Paulo, Brazil. Not only is it the oldest capital in the Americas, it’s one of two that was built by the Amerindians (the other being Quito, Ecuador). Actually, the city has just passed a number of liberal rulings in recent years: same-sex marriage, abortion, no-fault divorce, some forms of euthanasia, and other measures. It’s actually quite a diverse city and every bit of a modern city. There are significant populations of Arab, African, European, and Amerindian/Mexicans throughout the city and Mexico itself. Mexico City is also the home of the largest population of Americans outside of the US. It’s a cultural center of the country, especially for art, higher education, museums, theatres, and media. But it’s also a commerce, government, and sports center as well. (Mexicans love their soccer and bullfighting.)

This country is a leading global economy, making it the 11th largest country by PPP (purchasing power parity) and having the 15th largest nominal GDP. Some of the largest industries that drive the Mexican economy include electronics, auto manufacturing and parts (it produces the most vehicles in North America believe it or not), communications, science and technology, energy, transportation, and tourism.  

Roman Catholicism is the dominant religion in Mexico, but there are also a number of other Christian denominations. It’s actually the second largest Catholic population in the world, behind Brazil. There is also a growing number of non-religious people. Because Mexico is a widely diverse country, there are small numbers of Muslims, Jews, and Buddhists in Mexico as well. 

The national language is Spanish, and Mexico is the largest Spanish-speaking country in the world. But there are a number of other indigenous languages spoken in Mexico as well. Many people also speak Nahuatl, Zapotec, Mixtec, or Mayan languages. When I dated that guy from Oaxaca, and I listened to him speaking with some of his friends, and I couldn’t understand anything they were saying, recognizing it wasn’t Spanish; they all spoke one of the indigenous languages of Oaxaca—he told me that state alone has nearly 90 languages spoken there. 

There is so much about Mexico that I already know. I read James Michener’s “Texas” and “Mexico” years ago, both of which cover much of Mexican history. Mexican cooking and Mexican fusion is extremely popular as is many Mexican musicians. Reggaeton is certainly gaining popularity here in the US. (I love reggaeton, by the way, so I’m one of them.) Even in moderately sized cities, there are Mexican grocery stores and bakeries. Their presence is everywhere, even outside of the major urban areas. Spanish is the most widely studied second language in the US. I know it’s been hard to narrow down what recipes I’m going to pick for Mexico because everything sounds amazing.  But I’m going to try…as I look for ways to go there myself.

Up next: art and literature