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The Chilies of Mexico

By Julie Etra

While there are chilies – some of them (in)famous for their heat – from around the world, like the medium hot Hatch chilies from New Mexico, or hot Thai chilies, or even hotter Scotch Bonnets, this article focuses on the chilies of Mexico. Note, both spellings are acceptable: chili and chile.

The common name “chili” is from the Náhuatl word chilli. Chilies have been cultivated in Mexico for over 6,000 years. Although their precise origin is unclear, they no doubt come from Latin America. The Nahua (Aztecs) had various uses for the fruit besides consumption, including using the smoke to punish children or to combat military enemies; the smoke from charred chiles caused extreme eye irritation (anyone who has chopped a fresh or roasted high-Scoville-unit chili and then rubbed their eyes knows this firsthand).

Taxonomy and Biology

Chilies are in the genus Capsicum, derived from a Greek word meaning “capsule” (botanically speaking, that is incorrect since the fruit is a berry). They are in the nightshade family (Solanaceae), along with tomatoes and potatoes. Capsicum consists of 20–27 species, five of which are widely cultivated, with C. annuum being the most important. C. annuum includes chili de arbol, jalapeño and poblano, and others such as the domesticated sweet orange, red, and yellow bell peppers, Which are mature versions of the green bell pepper and not considered chilies.

The other four widely used chilies are C. baccatum (the domesticated ají pepper found in many South American countries), C. chinense (habanero chilies), C. frutescens (the Tabasco chili), and C. pubescens (the Mexican manzano, Bolivian locoto, and Peruvian rocoto). Many specific Mexican chilies have Náhuatl language equivalents (tlalchilli = chili de arbol).

Chilies found today have been bred from their wild ancestors, most likely the chiltepin or similar small but picante chilies that are found everywhere, since birds are one of the vectors and spread the seed with their waste. The chiltepin or pequin (or piquin) chilies that sometimes appear in the wild in Huatulco are consumed by the chachalacas (loud partridge-like birds with a red eye – chachalaca means chatty, which they are!). I have quit trying to cultivate these chilies, hoping to cut down on the chacalaca conversations in my yard! Wild chilies are pollinated by honeybees, bumblebees, other species of bees, and ants (and no doubt other insects).

What is the best way to describe chilies? Should we classify chilies by their heat? Fresh versus dried? By region? By size? By preparation?

CONABIO, Mexico’s National Commission for the Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity, puts out a fabulous poster of Mexican chilies with the slogan “Si no le pusiste chile, no esperes que te sepa.” This is the short version of a quote from David Alonso López, a graduate of the International Gastronomy program at the Universidad Mexicana: “Si no le pusiste chile, no esperes que te sepa la comida, aunque hay de picantes a picantes”: “If you didn’t add chilies, don’t expect you know our food [culture], although there’s hot and then there’s really hot.”

Chiles are often categorized by their heat or level of picante (spiciness), measured in Scoville units. For example, the habanero pica (bites), so it rates as very hot at 350,000 Scoville units, while the proletariat poblano, typically associated with the chili relleno, is considered mild at 1000-2000 units. (This might not always be the case with individual peppers, since chilies cross pollinate and hybridize.)

How to Use Mexican Chilies

Chilies can be used fresh or raw in salsas (immature/green; mature/red). They can be smoked, pickled (as in escabeche, that dish of pickled chilies, carrots, etc. that appears on many restaurant tables), or roasted. I like to roast poblanos, chop them up and add them to a batch of pinto or black beans, along with other ingredients, of course. Roasting usually adds heat; a roasted serrano is hotter than its fresh form. Typically, when chilies are roasted, the seed and the membranes are removed.

Dried chilies can be used in many ways; the red chili de arbol flakes are often served with pizza; chilies can be dried and ground into powders; whole dried chilies can be reconstituted by soaking in vinegar or water for use in salsa, e.g., guajillo salsa.

Poblano chilies can be stuffed (chili relleno; relleno = “filled”), not just with cheese but with almost anything. The poblanos first need to be roasted to char and remove the skin, which is hard to digest.

My favorite relleno is the very complicated chilies en nogada – chilies in walnut cream sauce, stuffed with meat and fruit and garnished with the sauce, pomegranate seeds, and parsley, the colors of the red, white, and green Mexican flag. The dish originated in the city of Puebla, where the struggle for Mexican independence began. It is said to have been prepared for Emperor Augustín de Iturbide (first president and then emperor after the war of independence – a long story for another time). It is a source of pride for the inhabitants of the state of Puebla; people from Puebla are known as “poblanos,” although that really means “people of the pueblo/town,” and not people of the pepper! You can order this exquisite dish at Campestre Santa Clara in La Crucecita.

Here’s a list of the varieties of chilies mostly commonly available in Huatulco, in fresh, dried, or smoked form, along with a few unusual chilies you might look for. The most popular are available in the supermarkets, but you’ll have better luck checking out the baskets at the produce markets and the Organic Market held on Saturdays in Santa Cruz (Mercado Orgánico de Huatulco – MOH). The Saturday schedule varies by the season.

The bola chili comes from Coahuila, Durango, Guerrero, Jalisco, and Veracruz. When it is dried, it is called cascabel. It’s used in salsas and “jams” (paste form), and has a nutty flavor.

The chawa chili grows in the Yucatán, and is used fresh (green) in salsas or pickled in escabeche.

The chilaca chili is from the state of Chihuahua, and is used green or red. A dried chilaca is called pasilla. Use chilacas in stews or roast them with cheese.

Chile verde del norte is similar to the anaheim chili or perhaps the Hatch chilies; green is spicier than red, which can be almost sweet. If it is dried while green, it is called chile seco del norte; if red, chile colorado. It can be used for chilies rellenos, in stews, soups (especially posole, the broth made with pork, hominy, and chilies, plus all the chopped toppings you want), and marinades and sauces.

Chile de arbol grows everywhere, is used fresh, either green or red, and dried, usually ground (molido). It’s picante – hot – and is used in everything.

Chile chicuarote (sometimes criollo) comes from the Valley of Mexico, and is grown in the San Gregorio Atlapulco neighborhood of Xochimilco, the floating gardens south of Mexico City. It is used fresh (green/red) or dried in salsas and moles. It’s also the title of a 2020 film directed by Gael García Bernal that portrays two young chicuarotes – the informal name for Xochimilco residents, meaning “pretty spicy” – who go from unsuccessful clowning to armed robbery while riding public transportation.

Chile chilhuacle is a rare chili that grows in Oaxaca, and is used dried. Considered essential in mole negro.

Chile costeño is also from Oaxaca, also used dried in moles and salsas. It adds a fruity flavor.

The chile loco comes from Puebla and is available in the rainy season. It used fresh or dried in salsas, pastes, or roasted and sliced. Picante.

The rare chile tuxta or tusta is from Oaxaca. It is dried and used in traditional recipes.

The small Chiltepin chilies grow throughout Mexico and are used fresh in salsas and aguachile (chili-water), a shrimp dish from northwestern Mexico like ceviche but without the marinating time that “cooks” the fish. Picante.

Güero chilis (güero = blond) are basically the same as banana peppers. They are grown in northern Mexico and used fresh in yellow mole, salsas, and escabeche.

Jalapeño chilies are available everywhere. When jalapeños are smoked, they are called chipotle; the canned version is called chipotles en adobo (sauce). Because it is smoked for less time, the morita chili is a milder type of chipotle. Jalapeños have many fresh uses (salsas, pickled for escabeche), while chipotles are used in stews and moles, among other dishes.

Manzana chilies come from the state of Michoacán in the Central Mexican Valley. They can be roasted or grilled, and are often used in salsas.

The mirasol chili grows upright – its name means “look at the sun.” Mirasol chilies come from the central Mexican altiplano (plateau). The dried form is called guajillo, a mild, sweetish pepper that adds rich flavor to moles, salsas, and stews.

Pequin chilies come largely from Coahuila and are used dry, mostly in salsas. Of course, the supermarkets all carry shaker bottles of “chili piquin,” sometimes with lime, which is great for sprinkling atop corn, eggs, avocado toast, and tropical fruit.

Poblano chilies are grown, predominantly in the state of Puebla, but are available everywhere; once the fresh poblanos are roasted, they can be stuffed (see above – delicious for chiles en nogada). Smoked poblanos are called ancho chilies, and good in bean dishes and stews. Serrano chilies are widely grown and available across Mexico. They are used fresh, both green and red, especially for salsa. Dried, they’re called chile seco. For more information and fun, check out these sites.

Lila Downs’ fabulous tribute to the chili, Son del Chile Frito. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_U1ZuI5rw3U.

  1. Conabio Poster: https://en.ihuitl.com/fullscreen-page/comp-jlojikxq/8c30da01-6084-4b6d-888b-80ebaafe6435/20.
  2. Scoville Chart: http://www.titlemax.com/discovery-center/lifestyle/peppers-ranked-by-scoville-heat-units/.
  3. On bola chilies: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9zs-hZ22iyM
  4. On loca and poblano chilies: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7JUdreyC-XU
  5. On the chicuarote chili: http://www.mexiconewsdaily.com/culture/cdmx-pueblo-chile-chicuarote/?utm_source=jeeng&utm_medium=email&trigger=click.

Naming the Mexican Schools– with People’s Names

By Julie Etra

When you started school, what was the name of your school? How about middle school? High school? I attended Roosevelt Elementary School in New York, but for which Roosevelt was it named? I’d like to forget junior high entirely – like many teens! My high school, New Rochelle High, was obviously named for a place. University of Colorado, Colorado State, places.

For years I have driven around Huatulco and its environs, up to Pluma Hidalgo, on to Oaxaca City through San José del Pacifico, out to Bahía San Augustín, and down to the Bajos de Coyula. In all these places, I have seen escuelas (schools) with specific names, the great majority named after renowned historical figures. While the schools I’m listing here are all in the vicinity of Huatulco, these names appear on schools throughout Mexico. They give us a picture of people recognized as important to Mexican history, philosophy, culture, and communication. To emphasize that history, they are listed in the chronological order of their lives.

Juan Jacobo Rousseau (1712-78) is the name of an escuela secundaria (grades 7, 8 9) in La Crucecita. This might seem a bit perplexing, given that the Swiss philosopher, writer, and composer never visited Mexico. However, Rousseau’s book The Social Contract (1763) – famous for the quote “Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains” – greatly influenced those who led the national wars of independence and revolutions of the United States (1775-83), France (1789-99), and Mexico (1810-21).

Don Miguel Gregorio Antonio Ignacio Hidalgo y Costilla y Gallaga Mandarte Villaseñor (1753-1811) was his full name, but he is known as Father Miguel Hidalgo. He is the famous Catholic priest credited with the Grito de Dolores, the “shout of rebellion” given at midnight on September 15/16 in the town of Dolores Hidalgo. The grito marked beginning of the movement for Mexico’s independence from Spain. Miguel Hidalgo is considered the Father of the Nation and was very progressive for his time, including being anti-slavery. On 6 December 1810, Hidalgo issued a decree abolishing slavery, threatening death to those who did not comply. He abolished tribute payments that indigenous peoples had to pay to criollo lords (Creole, a European born in Mexico). He was excommunicated and executed by the Spanish government. Suffice it to say that you will see many places named after Miguel Hidalgo, including states, roads, and schools – a kindergarten in Palo Grande, on route 175 north of Pluma Hidalgo, bears his name.

José Miguel Ramón Adaucto Fernández y Félix (1786-1843)​​ was a Mexican general and political figure who fought in the Mexican War of Independence. He changed his name to Guadalupe Victoria after winning a battle in that town. After the adoption of the Mexican Constitution of 1824, Victoria was elected as the first President of the United Mexican States, an office in which he served from 1824 to 1829. There are at least two schools named for Guadalupe Victoria along the Oaxacan coast, a primaria (elementary school) in San Pedro Mixtepec, north of Puerto Escondido, and a primaria in Chahuites, near Salina Cruz.

Leona Vicario (1789-1842) was one of the most prominent figures of the War of Independence. From her home in Mexico City, she supported the insurrection by informing rebels of the movements of Spanish troops. She was wealthy, independent, a feminist, and a journalist, and provided substantial financial support to the insurgency. She received several postmortem recognitions, including the title of “Distinguished and Beloved Mother of the Homeland” by the Congress of the Union. Her name is inscribed in gold in the Mural of Honor in the lower house of the Mexican Congress. The year 2020 was declared the Year of Leona Vicario, Benemérita Madre de la Patria (Praiseworthy Mother of the Homeland).

Melchor Ocampo (1814-61) is one of the most intriguing individuals noted in this article. Ethnically he was a mestizo (mixed indigenous and European ancestry) and a radical liberal. He was abandoned as a child at the doorstep of a wealthy Mexican woman who not only raised him but to whom she bequeathed her estate. He was fervently opposed to the Catholic Church, reflected in his early writings that earned him the reputation as an intellectual. He served in the administration of Benito Juárez (the indigenous 26th president of Mexico) and negotiated a controversial agreement with the United States. The McLane-Ocampo Treaty, which dealt with transportation and commerce, gave the U.S. substantial rights in Mexico despite the recently fought Mexican-American War (1846-48), when Mexico lost 30% of its territory. In 1874, the state of Michoacán was renamed to honor Ocampo – its formal name is Estado Libre y Soberano de Michoacán de Ocampo (The Free and Sovereign State of Michoacán de Ocampo). Many schools throughout Mexico are named for Ocampo, including a primaria in Puerto Angel.

Agustín Melgar (1829-47), was a military cadet and major figure in the defense of Chapultepec Castle against invading American forces. The Battle of Chapultepec, one of the last major battles of the Mexican–American War, took place on September 13th, 1847. After finding himself alone, Melgar tried to stop the enemy on the north side of the castle, killing one American soldier and then taking refuge behind mattresses in one of the rooms. He was one of six cadets, aged 13 to 19, from the military academy located on Chapultepec Hill. All six died in battle that day. They are known as the Niños Héroes (Child Heroes), and are commemorated by a national holiday on September 13th. There is a kindergarten named for Melgar in Santa María Huatulco; several schools in the area named for the Niños Héroes.

Macedonio Alcalá Prieto (1831-69). For all the times I’ve walked the pedestrian corridor in Oaxaca City – the Andador de Macedonio Alcalá – I never really realized for whom it was named. A majestic theatre in the historic district – el Teatro de Macedonio Alcalá – was also named for him. Alcalá was born in Oaxaca City and showed an early interest in music, learning the piano, cello, viola, flute, and ophicleide (a keyed brass instrument in the bugle family), but he excelled on the violin.

He grew up to be a violinist, pianist, and composer. After completing studies in Mexico City he returned to Oaxaca, where he became a member of the Philharmonic Society of Santa Cecilia, an orchestra specializing in regional music and composers. Later he became the director of the Banda de Música de Oaxaca. Alcalá was said to be passionate and high-strung, characteristics that distinguished his playing and his compositions. He struggled with poverty, disease, and alcoholism. Few of his compositions survive since he was remiss in putting them on paper. Among the surviving works are “Marcha Funebre” (Funeral March), “Solo dios en los cielos” (Only God in Heaven), “El Cohete” (The Rocket), “Ave María,” and a well-known waltz “Dios nunca muere” (God Never Dies), which is the unofficial state anthem of Oaxaca. Oaxaqueños stand when they hear it. Macedonio Alcalá is the name of a preschool in Pluma Hidalgo sponsored by CONAFE (Consejo Nacional de Fomento Educativo, which sets up schools in rural areas); there is a Macedonio Alcalá primary school on Hwy 175, north of Pochutla.

Enrique de Olavarría y Ferrari (1844-1919). Olavarría was a well-educated Spanish attorney who emigrated to Mexico in 1865, where he became a journalist, publisher, and educator. He briefly returned to Europe but made his way back to his final home in Mexico where he died. He collaborated on the short-lived (52 issues in 1869) literary magazine El Renacimiento (The Renaissance), considered essential to “awakening the interest in literature all over Mexico” after the chaotic period of the Mexican-American War and the French Intervention (1861-67).

Olavarría founded and collaborated on La Revista Universal and El Federalista, and worked as a columnist for a number of other journals and newspapers (El Constitucional, El Globo, and El Correo de México, among others). His teaching career in Mexico City included literature classes at the Conservatory of Music; geography, universal history, history of Mexico and declamation at the School of Arts and Crafts for Young Ladies; and mathematics at the Municipal Normal School and was administrator of the Colegio de las Vizcaínas. Many schools throughout the country are named for him.

Filomeno Mata Rodríguez (1845-1911) was a Mexican professor and journalist during the Porfiriato (the presidency of Porfirio Díaz) He is particularly noted as an opposition writer during this period, which resulted in his being incarcerated several times. He supported the candidacy for president of Francisco I. Madero at the beginning of the Mexican Revolution. A primary school in Erradura, just outside of Santa María Huatulco on the way to Pluma Hidalgo, is named for Mata Rodríguez.

José Vasconcelos (1882-1959. Passing a kindergarten in Santa María Huatulco, I wondered, “Hmmm, who is José Vasconcelos?” José Vasconcelos Calderón is often called the “cultural caudillo” (leader) of the Mexican Revolution. He was a writer, philosopher, politician (and presidential candidate), an influential as well as controversial figure in the history of modern Mexico. Although he was born in the state of Oaxaca (along with Benito Juárez and Porfirio Díaz) he was raised in Piedras Negras, Coahuila, on the Texas border and attended school in Eagle Pass, USA, where he learned English. Vasconcelos served as Mexico’s minister of education after the Revolution; he is credited with starting the Mexican muralism movement, in which artists created large murals to give a largely illiterate population an understanding of its history. The muralism movement made Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and José Clemente Orozco international famous in their own right.

Vasconcelos is particularly noted for penning the book entitled La raza cósmica (The Cosmic Race), which expressed the ideology of a future “fifth race” in the Americas, an agglomeration of all the races in the world with no respect to color. Vasconcelos espoused an anti-Anglo philosophy; he was also a bit of a rake. In addition to the kindergarten in Santa María, there is a Jose Vasconcelos secundaria in Santa María, and a Jose Vasconcelos primaria in Sector H3 in La Crucecita.

Adolfo López Mateos (1909-69) was a Mexican politician who served as Mexico’s president from 1958 to 1964. Born in Atizapán de Zaragoza in the state of México, he began his political career as a campaign aide to presidential candidate José Vasconcelos (who lost the 1929 election). López Mateos was the first self-declared left-wing politician to hold the presidency since Lázaro Cárdenas del Rio (President from 1934-40).

López Mateos said his political philosophy was “leftist, but within the Constitution.” In 1959, his administration created the Instituto de Seguridad y Servicios Sociales de los Trabajadores del Estado (Institute for Social Security and Services for State Workers) and La Comisión Nacional de Libros de Texto Gratuitos (National Commission for Free Textbooks). In 1960, López Mateos created the CFE (Comisión Federal de Electricidad) during a time of economic growth, and opened the National Museum of Anthropology in 1964.

He was an advocate of non-intervention and settled a border dispute with the U.S. with the Chamizal Treaty, signed August 31, 1964. The treaty granted Mexico 630 acres of what was South El Paso. He advocated a course of independence from the U.S., but cooperated on some issues, despite his opposition to the hostile U.S. policy toward the 1959 Cuban Revolution. Along with Cárdenas and his predecessor, Adolfo Tomás Ruiz Cortines (1952-58), he is considered to be one of the most popular Mexican presidents of the 20th century. Many schools throughout Mexico bear his name, including a primaria in Santa María Huatulco.

Las Nanacateras: The wild mushroom collectors

By Julie Etra

Mushroom collection and consumption in Mexico go back thousands of years, predating the Spanish conquest. The Sierra Juárez de Oaxaca, the mountain range between the coast and the valley of Oaxaca, is known for its wild mushrooms, edible, hallucinogenic, and poisonous (the latter two can be somewhat synonymous). It is estimated that there are 250,000 species of mushrooms in Mexico. Produce markets here in the Bahías de Huatulco might lead you to believe Mexico has only introduced button, crimini, and portobello mushrooms (all different life stages of the same species, Agaricus bisporus), and occasionally other cultivated varieties, such as oyster mushrooms. But the many wild mushrooms found growing in temperate forested highlands are becoming more and more popular when seasonally available, particularly in urban areas, including the gourmet markets in Mexico City.

In the State of Hidalgo, northeast of the state of Mexico, when conditions for growth are optimal during the rainy season, skilled, exclusively women, mushroom collectors known as nanacateras are busy. August is known as mushrooms month or hongosto (hongos = fungi, gosto short for agosto). The Otomi nanacateras (the Otomi are an indigenous group, with their own language, Otomi) apply their exceptional skills distinguishing the edible from the non-edible and teach the methods of both collection and preparation.

Other well known nanacateras are also from Hidalgo, including the pueblo of Acaxochitlán. These women offer workshops on identification, methods of collection, and preparation. San Lorenzo Tlacoyucan, a rural area southeast of Mexico City in a region known as the Milpa Alta, located on the steep slopes of an extinct volcano just east of the state of Morelia, is also known for its climate, ideal for wild mushrooms.

Sierra Juárez de Oaxaca
We have passed through San Jose del Pacifico on our way to Oaxaca on numerous occasions and have seen signs posted for identification and collection workshops. We don’t know if these workshops are taught by nanacateras or other skilled collectors, but, like other snowbirds, we are never here during the optimum period, the rainy season.

The Ethnobotanical Gardens of Santo Domingo

By Julie Etra

The Convent
The gardens are located behind the Church and Convent of Santo Domingo de Guzmán (the Spanish monk who founded the Dominican order) in Oaxaca City at the end of the Calle Macedonio Alcalá. This church and convent, now also a museum, was originally built as a convent beginning in 1551; the Dominicans’ finances and two earthquakes in the early 1600s that destroyed the city’s other Dominican convent (Templo de San Pablo) delayed completion until 1666, and resulted in the Santo Domingo complex housing both monks and nuns. The last addition to Santo Domingo was the chapel of the Virgin of Rosario, built between 1724 and 1731. Visitors can still observe the ovens where limestone was processed for the mortar / cement used in construction of the buildings, as well as a ceramic kiln, baths, a laundry, irrigation and drainage ditches, cobbled paths, food and fuel storage facilities, the former orchard (now the Ethnobotanical Garden) and other vestiges of daily life for the nuns occupying and operating in a 17th-century Dominican religious complex.

The destruction of the Santo Domingo, including the cathedral, began in the 19th century, when the complex was occupied by the factions that would bring on the War of Independence (1810-21). In 1859, the “Iglesias Law” reserved Santo Domingo for use by the Mexican army; in 1866, the Mexican government suspended Catholicism in the country. In 1902, the complex was returned to the Catholic church by Mexican President Porfirio Díaz. The former nun’s rooms most likely remained dormitories; and the grounds and buildings were converted into stables, munitions storage and other military facilities. The conversion of the area surrounding the main cloister to a museum began in 1962, and concluded with the restoration of the main atrium in 1974.

Botanical Gardens
Various dictionaries define a botanical garden as “a place where collections of plants and trees are kept for scientific study and exhibition, [Collins];” also “a garden for the exhibition and scientific study of collected, growing plants, usually in association with greenhouses, herbariums, laboratories, etc. [Penguin Random House].”

Plants can be grouped by climate, color, growth form, and taxonomy. They are typically identified by their scientific and common names. An ethnobotanical garden features native plants in relation to the culture of the region, such as food, textiles, and structures. Whenever my husband and I travel, we try to visit local botanical gardens. Some are better than others; usually my complaints concern the lack of identification.

Uniqueness of the Ethnobotanical Garden
What struck me immediately in 2007 during the first of many visits to this garden was precisely that, the lack of scientific information. What, no plant names? The docent explained to us that the signs and labels would detract from the beauty of the garden, which had been designed and laid out primarily by the Oaxacan artists Francisco Toledo (see The Eye, November 2019) and Luis Zárate, a well-known Oaxacan painter from Santa Catarina Cuanana, although the roles of Zárate and others were disputed by the garden’s director, Alejandro de Ávila. What also struck me then, and continues to do so, are all the textures; the forms of plants in relationship to the setting; the use of different grades and colors of rocks, sand, and gravel; the specific layout of the water features; placement of art; and the special attention to light and shadows created by masonry and plants. Spectacular.

The Plant Collection
Planning for the garden began in 1993, and planting in 1998. The garden represents the diversity of climates, geological formations, and types of vegetation that characterize Oaxaca, which has the greatest biological and cultural diversity of all of Mexico. The hundreds of plants in the garden represent arid and humid climates, lowland tropics, and temperate and cold mountainous areas.

To date 950 species (10% of the flora of the state of Oaxaca) have been planted, representing 118 families, 472 genera, and 7,500 individuals. The garden features a large collection of agaves (there are 157 species in Mexico, of which 71% are endemic), grouped in various locations.

Criteria for species selection included the origin of agriculture (see teosinte, below); traditional orchards; indigenous medicine; plants that are part of the artistic tradition of Oaxaca, such as fibers for textiles, dyes (cochineal), natural soaps, and resins used in metallurgy, silk production, and adhesives. From my perspective highlights include Matrimonio (Pereskia lychnidiflora) the only tree-like and leaf-producing species of cactus, various endemic species of Bursera (we have five species on the coast), and teosinte (the perennial ancestor of modern annual corn).

Teosinte, whose origin goes back an estimated 8,000 years, is part of a special section of the garden dedicated to species found in the Guilá Naquitz, a cave east of the archeological site of Mitla, where 6,000-year-old squash seeds were also found. Near the beginning of the garden tour is a section dedicated to cycads. Cycads are living fossils, and date back 230 million years to the Jurassic age of the dinosaurs. Oaxaca has more than 20 species of cycads, most of which are endemic. One particularly special cycad, Dioon purpusii, an endemic with a very limited range, was collected in the wild by Cassiano Conzatti, a botanist, who transplanted it to his home. Fifty years later his grandchildren donated it to the garden. Although of Italian origin Conzatti lived and worked in Mexico for most of his life and was an early authority on the flora of Oaxaca, especially ferns.

Landscape Architecture and Art
Strikingly beautiful is the Espejo de Cuanana (mirror of Cuanana) designed by Luis Zárate. This is a fountain/canal lined on either side with the órgano cactus (Pachycereus marginatus), reflected in the water of the canal. The name of this landscape feature recalls Zárate’s original home.

The Patio del Huaje (the patio of the huaje tree, for which Oaxaca was named) and the fountain La Sangre de Mitla (the blood of Mitla) were designed by Toledo. The garden also features sculptures in wood and stone by the French/Mexican sculptor and architect Jorge DuBon, Oaxacan abstract plastic artist José Villalobos, and the Mexican sculptor Jorge Yázpik.

Tours are conducted in Spanish, English, French, and German. For some reason the Spanish version is one hour long versus the two-hour English tour (we took the Spanish tour several times; it is also easier to get tickets). If you want to take the tour in English, get there early! For frustrated botanists like me, the director, still Alejandro de Ávila, has pointed out that the garden also includes a reference library, which was closed the last time I was there (January 2023). Next time! ¡Proxima vez!

For more information:

Chinampas, Calzadas, and Aqueducts: The Ancient Engineering Marvels of Tenochtitlán

By Julie Etra

Tenochtitlán was the capital of the Triple Aztec Alliance empire (formed in 1428 and ruled by the Mexica, the empire joined together the three Nahua states of Tenochtitlán, Texcoco, and Tlacopan). There is not enough space in this column to write about all the marvels of the Tenotchtilán itself, a magnificent city built on the five inland lakes in the Valley of Mexico. The Aztec empire was at its peak when Tenochtitlán was substantially destroyed by the Spanish Conquest in 1521.

Two of the most intriguing aspects of this civilization were its systems of agriculture/food cultivation and water management (they are of course intertwined), especially how these systems were constructed. For those readers interested in more detail, Barbara Mundy’s exhaustively researched and superbly written book is referenced below.

The Valley of Mexico

The basin that comprised the Valley of Mexico had five lakes: Zumpango, Xaltocan, Texcoco, Xochimilco, and Chalco. They were endorheic, i.e., they had no outlet, were hydraulically connected, and formed one enormous lake when flooded. The lakes were shallow, with a depth of no more than 150 ft (45 m); water quality varied. The more isolated southern lakes of Xochimilco and Chalco were higher and protected by the high peninsula formed by Cerro de la Estrella on the east and a “lava plug” to the west; the lakes were fed by springs and rivers, and so held fresh water. Drainage from the higher lakes flowed north to Texcoco (the largest lake), Zumpango, and Xaltocan; the waters of these lakes were brackish (saltier).

Following the discovery of a freshwater spring in Lake Texcoco at what came to be called Chapultepec (“grasshopper hill” in Nahuatl – chapulin = grasshopper, tepec = place), the rocky island of Tenochtitlán was settled on June 20, 1325. The brackish waters supported salt-tolerant aquatic life and were harvested for a species of algae made into edible patties. Flooding during the rainy season not only joined the lakes, but the backwash could threaten the innovative Aztec agricultural system known as chinampas.


The chinampas were rectangular gardens located in the southern lakes. Swampy land was dredged, creating navigable channels between islands. These islands were constructed with logs, reeds, and sticks woven into frames and covered with the muck of soil, mud, roots, and other dredged plant detritus. Whether or not these farmed rectangular parcels floated, as do the modern Floating Gardens of Xochimilco, is still subject to scholarly debate, although the establishment of willows would anchor them. While more investigation might reveal the actual materials, I would guess that the “reeds” included species of cattails (Typha spp.), bullrush (Scirpus spp.), and reeds (Cyperus spp.), all of which grow in standing water or saturated soils and are supple enough to weave. Ahuejote (Salix bonplandiana), an erect willow resembling a poplar, grew on the drier shores, along with ahuehuete (Taxodium mucronatum), aka sabino and Montezuma bald cypress. Ahuejote is derived from the Nahuatl word ahuexotl (atl = water, huexotl = willow). The Spanish word for willow is sauce; think of Sausalito, California, near San Francisco, meaning little grove of willows.

Young, flexible branches of willows were used in constructing the chinampas, and live cuttings were planted for eventual shade and to stabilize the structures through their vigorous and extensive root systems. (The bark of this versatile plant produces salicylic acid, the active ingredient in aspirin, and was no doubt an herbal Mexica pain reliever). The dense and durable wood of the ahuehuete was most likely used as posts for the multi-functional causeways called calzadas (more about them in a minute).

According to the noted archaeologists Pedro Armillas and William T. Sanders, the swampland converted into chinampas was estimated to be about 12,000 hectares, enough to support a population of between 117,000 – 200,000 with an annual consumption of 160 kilograms of maiz (corn) per head. What else grew on these islets? Chia, beans, squash, tomatoes, avocados, amaranth, cacao (chocolate), chilies, cotton, and a variety of flowers including marigolds, which are native to Mexico. The Mexica fished and also consumed the endemic salamander, the axolotl (Ambystoma mexicanum), named after the Aztec god of fire and lightning, Xolotl. The axolotl was important in the diet of pre-Hispanic residents of the city, along with ducks and other waterfowl that were trapped in nets.


Construction of the calzadas, the system of dikes and watery causeways, was begun in the 1420s, initially to separate the brackish from the fresh water. They most likely had openings to manage flows, similar to an agricultural sluice gate. The calzadas averaged five to seven meters wide and eight km (about 4.8 mi) in length. To form the dikes, wood posts, perhaps from the locally available black cypress or pine/oaks in the surrounding forests, were anchored in the shallow lakes and back filled with layers of rock, clay, and a mortar of mud and calcium carbonate (limestone). They required constant maintenance.

Netzahualcóyotl, the tlatoani (leader) of Texcoco – and a scholar, philosopher, warrior, architect, and poet to boot – vastly improved on this system of water management. Aside from his military victories, governmental prowess, and poetic skills, he was a superb engineer. According to Wikipedia, “He is said to have personally designed the albarrada de Nezahualcóyotl (dike of Nezahualcóyotl) to separate the fresh and brackish waters of Lake Texcoco, a system that was still in use over a century after his death.”

The construction of the calzadas took place at roughly the same time as the aggressive expansion of the Triple Alliance empire, which handily had 50,000-plus solders available from Nezahualcoyotl’s army. The calzadas also served as roadways, which ironically contributed to the conquest of the city as the Spaniards cut off supplies, particularly the aqueducts conveying water (see below for this third triumph of ancient engineering), from the mainland. The calzadas were the avenues of trade and contributed to the enormous wealth of the city, as the groups conquered by the Triple Alliance, which extended to Guatemala at its height, paid tribute to the capital.

The aqueducts

In 1466 Nezahualcóyotl began the construction of another important hydraulic work, the Chapultepec aqueduct system. It supplied fresh spring water to Tenochtitlán. Before the aqueduct system was built, water was supplied by canoe from the springs at Chapultepec (now a large park in the middle of modern Mexico City). Water was distributed through apantles (open pipes) to public fountains and noble houses.

A second aqueduct was built by Nezahualcóyotl’s successor, Ahuítzotl, around 1500. Although Ahuítzotl had supervised a huge project to rebuild Tenochtitlán, completing the Temple Mayor (the Great Pyramid), the aqueduct project didn’t go so well. At the springs of Coyoacán, Ahuítzotal had a dam and two holding tanks built at elevations necessary to create enough pressure to send water into new aqueducts that joined the existing system. As the story goes, about 40 days after the Coyoacán aqueduct opened, it began to rain. It continued to rain. It poured. The elevated design sent high-pressure floodwaters throughout the city, Ahuítzol took refuge in the Temple Mayor, hit his head on a brand new rock, and died shortly after.

I am now out of both time and space!

For more information:


Mundy, Barbara E. The Death of Aztec Tenochtitlan, The Life of Mexico City (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2015).

Conejos y Liebres

By Julie Etra

Where we live, in Reno, Nevada, we consider rabbits a nuisance. (Nevada, by the way, means snow-covered, and the Sierra Nevada are snow-covered mountains – certainly so in December 2022). Rabbits eat a lot of grass and they reproduce rapidly and frequently. They deposit concentrated calcium from their urine and solid waste right where they forage, further stressing the grasses on which they continue to graze. On the other hand, rabbits are essential food for predators such as coyotes and birds of prey.

In Huatulco, we live in Residenciales Conejos, the subdivision with a symbol of a rabbit at the entrance, located on the Bahia de Conejos. So, I said to myself when we bought the lot, hmmm, bunnies. After 13 years in Res. Conejos, we do see an occasional bunny and/or their sign (pellets), but no hares (liebre, in Spanish) and our small patch of grass is not suffering from their presence.

What makes a rabbit a rabbit? First, they are mammals. In general, they have long ears (this varies considerably), a short tail, long hind legs, and continuously growing sharp incisors. Most species are gray or brown and range in size from 10 to 18 inches (25 to 45 cm) long and weigh 1 to 4 pounds (0.5 to 2 kg). They feed primarily on grasses.

There are four species of rabbits and one hare (a type of jackrabbit) found in the selva seca, or dry jungle, of Mexico (see Julie Etra’s article on the selva seca in Huatulco in the December 2022 issue of The Eye). Two of the rabbits are endemic, one of these is threatened and endangered, and the hare (Lepus flavigularis) is considered very rare.

Rabbits in the Jungle

The bunnies or cottontails found in the selva seca include the common tapeti cottontail (Sylvilagus brasiliensis), also called the Brazilian cottontail or forest cottontail. It is a small- to medium-sized bunny, with an expansive range from Tamaulipas to southern Mexico, through Central America, and as far as central Brazil. It has a small, dark tail, short hind feet and short ears. The tapeti cottontail is nocturnal and solitary

The Mexican cottontail (Sylvilagus cunicularius) is endemic to Mexico and the selva seca. This is the dude or dudette(s) (macho y hembra) we would be lucky to see in Huatulco. It is the largest of the Mexican rabbits. Preferred habitats include temperate, subtropical or tropical dry forests, and pastureland. It is a common bunny and is found from Sinaloa south to the states of Veracruz and Oaxaca. It breeds year-round, but particularly in the wet season when there is more quality forage available. Although this bunny is pretty common, it still faces the threats typical for rabbits (and other wildlife), including loss of habitat through land use conversion (grazing, agriculture, urban development), hunting, and predation.

The eastern cottontail, Sylvilagus floridanus, is the most common cottontail in North America. Interestingly, it’s not the cottontail that forages on our meadow and lawn in northern Nevada – that’s the mountain cottontail (Sylvilagus nuttallii). The eastern cottontail has a short lifespan due to high rates of predation by numerous predators, rarely living past the age of two. It issues a creepy scream when injured (as does the mountain cottontail).

Sylvilagus graysoni is endemic to Mexico and is in danger of extinction. Its common name is the Tres Marías cottontail, as it is endemic to the Tres Marías Islands off the coast of Nayarit, where it was previously abundant. It is not found along the selva seca of Oaxaca or other dry tropical forests in Mexico. Given its limited range and occurrence, it only has three known wildlife predators: the Tres Marías racoon (Procyon lotor insularis), a subspecies of the common racoon, and two birds of prey, the red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) and the crested caracara (Caracara plancus), the latter being common on our coast. The Tres Marías cottontail is also threatened by hunting. Although not a lot is known about their behavior, given the remoteness of the Tres Marías Islands and the low number of predators, the rabbit is purportedly not wary of humans. As with other rabbits in similar habitats, its diet changes from herbaceous vegetation in the rainy season to sticks and bark in the dry months of winter.

The Hares of the Isthmus

Lepus flavigularis is endemic to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, more specifically the Gulf of Tehuantepec, and in fact the common name is the Tehuantepec or tropical jackrabbit. Historically it was found from Salina Cruz in Oaxaca to Tonalá just over the border in Chiapas, but has not been seen that far east in recent years. Currently there are four small populations, all located around the Upper and Lower Lagoons of the Gulf of Tehuantepec – Salina Cruz is the major population center on the Gulf.

This very large-eared (up to 5 in, or12 cm), slender-bodied hare is well adapted to its often arid and hot environment. The large surface area of its ears helps regulate its temperature; the size of the ears enhances its hearing and ability to detect predators. The hind feet are large and well developed, allowing for rapid escape from predators. In general, adults weigh from 7.7 to 8.8 pounds (3.5-4.5 kg), with a body that measures 22-24 inches long (55-60 cm) and a tail 2.5 to 3.5 inches (6.5- 9.5 cm) in length. This jackrabbit reaches sexual maturity at six or seven months and is polygamous; they typically reproduce during the rainy season when there is an abundance of forage. After around 32 days of gestation, the mother hare gives birth to one to four kits.

The Tehuantepec jackrabbit is crepuscular, meaning active at dusk, and nocturnal when the ambient temperature drops. Habitat and diet are grasslands, where they prefer to forage native rather than introduced grasses. Threats to this species are typical for many species of wildlife: habitat loss due to urban encroachment and agriculture; introduction of non-native species, particularly annual grasses; hunting; and predation by coyotes and foxes. For more detail check out the following link: https://www.lifeder.com/liebre-de-tehuantepec/.

Since their primary diet in the rainy season is grasses, why is Bugs Bunny always munching on a carrot? What’s up with that, doc?

Huatulco’s Selva Seca

By Julie Etra

How many times have you heard a newbie’s surprise upon arriving in Huatulco in the dry season, which corresponds with the high tourist season, wondering what happened to the lush tropical green jungle shown on glossy brochures and websites?

What is the Selva Seca?

Welcome to the selva seca, the “dry jungle.” Huatulco has a caducifolio, or deciduous, ecosystem, an unusual semi-tropical forest in which most trees lose their leaves. Although not unique to Mexico, it is best represented in this country, and it occurs in a number of Mexican states, in particular along our beautiful Oaxacan coast. The selva seca occupies approximately 11.7% (226,898 km²) of the total area of Mexico, along the Pacific coast from southern Sonora and southwestern Chihuahua to Chiapas, continuing to Tehuantepec with small portions in the extreme south of the Baja California Peninsula and in the north of the Yucatan Peninsula. Selvas secas are generally found from sea level up to 1,500 meters, and occasionally to 1,900 meters above sea level in very dry areas.

The selva seca is described as warm-subhumid tropical – it gets HOT. As any Huatulqueño can attest, this warm climate has an average annual temperature of 27ºC (80.6ºF), a bit lower in the ‘winter’ and dry months, with approximately 330 sunny days a year. The rainy season, which dumps an average of 100 cm (over 39 inches), ends around November/December, and starts again in late May/June, preceded by a very hot, humid, and buggy period in mid-to-late April until the rains begin. Soils are typically rocky, with a poorly developed layer of organic matter.

This ecosystem can be further divided into subcategories; the selva seca on the Oaxacan coast, about 66,492 sq. km (about 24,670 sq. mi.), is described as selva baja caducifolia or selva baja espinosa caducifolia, with espinosa meaning “spiny,” as we do have a number of spiny plants and many species of cactus. In English it is also referred to as low (the baja part) deciduous forest, tropical deciduous forest, low deciduous forest, or sub-humid forest. These forests are considered evergreen when less than 25% of the species lose their leaves, sub-evergreen when 25 to 50% of the species lose their leaves, sub-deciduous (50 to 75% of the species lose their leaves) or deciduous (more than 75% of the species lose their leaves). Since more than 75% of the coastal trees lose their leaves, the coast of Oaxaca is best defined in English as deciduous.

Plant Life of the Selva Seca

This forest has approximately 6,000 species of plants, of which almost 40 are endemic, meaning they are only found in these ecosystems and are adapted to drought.

The height of the dominant woody vegetation is often 15 meters or less (under 50 feet) for the selva baja. In addition to trees, this ecosystem supports a variety of shrubs, lianas (vines), epiphytes (the pinkish pineapple-like piñuela seen in the planting beds of many of the medians on major roads) and agaves.

Small trees include the huaje or guaje (Leucaena leucocephala), for which Oaxaca was named (it means “place where the huaje grows”), which produces a pea-like pod replete with peas. Some trees like the cuachalalá or cuachalalate (Amphipterygium adstringens), whose bark is used for medicinal purposes, drop their leaves at the very beginning of the dry season – snowbirds never get to see the leaves.

The guanacastle or guanacaste (Enterolobium cyclocarpum), Huatulco’s magnificent huge shade tree, welcomes visitors and residents en route from highway 200 to Huatulco, along the median just south of the Fonatur logo. In early to mid-April, the guanacastles exhibit new bright green leafy growth, having detected the increase in ambient humidity.

There are at least five species of copal (Bursera spp.), all of which drop their leaves in winter. One species, known commonly as mulato, has the gorgeous flakey red bark so visually outstanding in the native forest. Copal trees produces a resin which hardens into incense used in spiritual ceremonies for centuries; the bark apparently also produced pigments for painting the ancient ruins of Mexico. Most people who visit Mexico, however, will encounter the wood of a copal tree when they purchase an alebrije, the colorful, fanciful figures carved and painted by Mexical folk artists.

What Stays Green in the Selva Seca?

Of course, not all our native species fall into the 75% deciduous category (by the way, coconut palms are not native, but we do have a native palm, the sabal Mexicana whose pencas (fronds) are used in palapa construction). Riparian corridors stay green, the shrubby ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens or madcogalii), with its white or red flowers, respectively, is barely deciduous, and the ceiba tree, also called pochote, can look a little ratty, but not for long.

The Best of the Selva Seca

What I especially love about the dry season is the number of trees that flower! We have three species of macuil (Tabebuia rosea) with their big, showy purple, pink, and yellow flowers, the guayacán (Guaiaccum coulteri)with its yellow-centered purple flowers, and the magnificent cojón de caballo or cojón de toro (Tabernaemontana donnell-smithii), its large yellow flower appearing early in the winter, contrasting with its smooth white/silvery bark. Translated, as you might guess, as the horse- or bull-ball tree, it is named for the shape of its fruit, which grows in pairs.

The final benefit of being in the selva seca in the dry season is the birdlife, both residents and winter migrants. They are so much easier to see and identify in the less leafy landscape, making this area a winter birder’s paradise!

Sandra Cisneros

By Julie Etra

I knew nothing about Sandra Cisneros when my Spanish teacher in the United States suggested I read La Casa en Mango Street (The House on Mango Street). Cisneros is a Chicago born Chicana, so the 1984 book was originally written in English when Cisneros was 30. I read it in Spanish as part of my ongoing study of Mexican culture and language; there have been at least three Spanish translations – one in 1994 by the renowned Mexican writer Elena Poniatowska. Coincidentally a great article and interview with Cisneros was recently published in the The New Yorker in September of this year http://www.newyorker.com/culture/the-new-yorker-interview/sandra-cisneros-may-put-you-in-a-poem). To save you from fighting with The New Yorker’s paywall, I’ll be quoting from the article.

Cisneros is perhaps best known for her poetry, although I am a fan of both Casa and the collection of short stories Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories (1991; translated by Liliana Valenzuela in 1996 as El arroyo de la Llorona y otros cuentos).

Although I read both of these books in Spanish, Cisneros has the unique bilingual knack of bridging the two languages, inserting Spanish translations of the English. The 2021 bilingual paperback Martita, I Remember You/Martita, te recuerdo, is written in English on one side but the reader can flip the pages to read the Spanish translation. Clever.

Technically speaking, Cisneros is not a Mexican writer since she was born in the United States. She grew up in a poor neighborhood on the west side of Chicago, the only daughter of a Mexican father and Mexican American mother, surrounded by six brothers. According to Cisneros, she felt isolated as a child and was lumped in with her brothers, described as siete hijos instead of seis hijos y una hija (seven boys instead of six boys and a girl) by her father. Her father was an upholsterer, her mother a book lover.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s her father took the family back and forth to Mexico on a frequent basis; thus she developed the self-identity schism between the two cultures. This was further exacerbated when in 1976 she entered the writer’s program at the Iowa College of Liberal Arts and Sciences where she continued to feel like a misfit. She went on to write Casa and then began teaching in San Antonio where she lived for 15 years and founded the Macondo Writers’ Workshop, named after the fictitious town in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967).

Cisneros never married nor had children, her rationale being that she did not want to be distracted from her writing and that she was a bit old fashioned in her belief in the sanctity of marriage in that she didn’t want to have a future divorce. According to The New Yorker, she is relieved and apparently happy that she never selected the wrong guy: “It’s hard to live with someone, and it’s hard to live alone. But I prefer living alone. … I’ve never seen a marriage that is as happy as my living alone. My writing is my child and I don’t want anything to come between us.” She has said that the greatest love of her life was her dog Chamaco.

Tired of living in San Antonio, and in particular provincial Texas, she returned to her mother’s Guanajuato roots and now resides in San Miguel de Allende, México, immersing herself in Mexican culture, but not without challenges. She did not take much time to explore the town before she moved there following an auspicious visit.

When the interviewer from The New Yorker remarks, “So you decided to move to San Miguel de Allende,” Cisnero answers, “Yes, I came here. I didn’t know the town was colonial and had a very colonial writing program, all white and expensive and structured in a very colonial way. I didn’t realize it was San Miguel apartheid, and, when I told them that, they were offended and shocked, so I lost my enthusiasm for the book fair. I’m going to be onstage there next spring. I’m only going to do it if I can donate my honorarium to the Spanish-language portion of the fair, so, you know, that’s my way of making my peace with them. I came because this is the land of my mother’s people. I wanted to investigate those roots.”

She named her house in San Miguel Casa Coatlicue. In Nahuatl it means “Serpent Skirt”; Coatlicue is the Nahua mother goddess, symbol of the earth as both creator and destroyer, mother of the gods and the goddess of childbirth, fertility, life, and death, and one of the most important Aztec or Nahua gods. A fitting name for a house of this remarkable and independent woman.

One of my favorite short stories in Woman Hollering Creek (a real creek located behind her house in San Antonio) is “Ojos de Zapata,” (Eyes of Zapata), as told by Inés Alfaro Aguilar, the primera mujer (first woman) of the famous Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata. Reports indicate that Zapata had anywhere from 9 to 16 “wives” (some of whom he may actually have married); he did not marry Inés, with whom he fathered at least three sons and one daughter.
(That of course stimulated my interest in both Zapata and Inés and led me down the rabbit hole of a chapter of Mexican history before I eventually returned to Cisneros’ next story.) “Ojos de Zapata” is fascinating not only from Inés’ perspective as the neglected “wife” of this famous revolutionary general, but for its sensual descriptions of a time, a place, and a relationship.

Back to The New Yorker interview regarding her residence in San Miguel:
Interviewer: “Is this it? Do you think you’ve finally found home?”
Cisneros: “I think I have one more house in me.”
Interviewer: “Where would it be?”
Cisneros: “Oaxaca, maybe.”

Spanish Lesson:

By Julie Etra

Spanish is a gender-inflected language, which means that the forms of nouns, adjectives, and articles change according to whether someone or something is considered masculine or feminine. In general, but not always, an ending of ‘o’ indicates the masculine, and an ending of ‘a’ indicates the feminine. Sometimes the word for an obviously gendered noun is completely different in the masculine vs. the feminine.

The very language is macho in that Spanish favors things and people being male – if there is one boy present in a group of girls, just ONE, they are all niños or hijos, etc. Now, linguistically speaking, that’s not really offensive, because the masculine gender includes words that in another language – e.g., Latin, from which Spanish is descended – would have been neuter. The feminist perspective, however, finds it really offensive. Efforts at language neutrality in Spanish are underway in Argentina, but that’s a long and complicated story for some other time!

Baby: el nene, el bebe (masculine), la nena (feminin- also means girlfriend, like babe), la bebe
Boy/girl: muchacho/muchacha. Muchachos can also equate with fellas, boys, as in ‘let’s go boys’: ‘vamos muchachos’
Kid(s): chavos/chavas,chamacos/chamacas, esquincles/esquinclas
Child: el niño, la niña
Man/woman: el hombre/la mujer
Son/daughter: el hijo/la hija
Son-in-law: yerno
Daughter-in-law: nuera
Stepson/daughter: hijastro/hijastra
Male/female dog: macho, hembra.

Here’s a funny story on the sex of dogs. Many years ago, before I spoke Spanish, we drove down the Baja Peninsula with our male dog. When the cops asked us if the dog was macho, which was obvious as he was intact, I thought they meant aggressive. So I answered, “No es macho, es muy amigable” (“He’s not male, he is very friendly.”) No wonder the cop looked confused!

Next month I’ll continue with other family members and friends. Maybe more animals.

Spanish Lesson: Expressing Happiness

By Julie Etra

As in English, there are various ways to say you’re happy.

Happy: feliz, felices (pl). “Feliz” may be the most common word used for “happy.” There’s a wonderful song, “Sé feliz,” written by the Cuban singer Anaís Abreu, with big hits by singers like the late Mercedes Sosa from Argentina and Lila Downs from Mexico. The lyrics contrast states of sadness and despair with buoyant happiness:

Si la soledad te enferma el alma
If loneliness makes your soul sick
Si el invierno llega a tu ventana
If winter comes to your window
No te abandones a la calma, con la herida abierta
Do not abandon yourself to calm, with an open wound
Mejor olvidas y comienzas una vida nueva.
You better forget and start a new life.
Y respira el aire puro
And breathe the fresh air
Sin el vicio de las dudas.
Without the vice of doubts.
Si un día encuentras la alegría de la vida
If one day you find the joy of life
Sé feliz, sé feliz, sé feliz, sé feliz.
Be happy, be happy, be happy, be happy.

Happy Birthday: feliz cumpleaños (don’t forget the tilde over the ‘n’).

Congratulations: felicidades, felicitaciones – obviously, these terms are related to feliz.

Other words for “happy”:
alegre – happy, gleeful, joyous, stronger than feliz.
contento(a) – happy, less emphatic than feliz, equivalent to “content” in English: Estoy contenta – I am content, I am happy, I am satisfied.
satisfecho(a) – much like contento(a).
dichoso(a) – especially happy, blissful, fully satisfied: Me siento dichoso por haberte conocido – I am really happy to have met you.

Words for “happiness”:

alegria – happiness, gleefulness, cheerfulness.
gozo – joy, enjoyment, from the verb gozar, to enjoy.
júbilo – joy, glee, jubilance. It is not the same as jubilado(a), which means retired (which, dear readers, I am not).

We’ll save triste and tristeza (sad and sadness) for the next issue of The Eye.