Mole & Chilis Poblanos

I figured I should make a post about the food in Puebla, since it’s such an important part of their culture. Pueblans take pride in how spicy their cuisine is—during our orientation, we were warned to always ask how spicy food is before we eat it. If it contains no chili pepper at all, it’s safe. If we’re told that it has chili but isn’t spicy, that means it’s pretty spicy. If they claim it’s just a little bit spicy, we can assume it’s very spicy. And if a native of Puebla considers it very spicy, we should stay far away from it. So far, I haven’t had trouble with the spicy food, but I always ask before I order.

Pueblans really are very proud of their peppers. The poblano chili pepper originated here, and it’s used it so many dishes. To be honest, I’m not sure what makes it different from other peppers; but I wouldn’t say that to anyone from Puebla! One of the most popular forms of poblano is chile rellenos. I’ve actually had chile rellenos in the US, but I haven’t yet tried the poblano twist on it. Chile rellenos consists of a pepper stuffed with just about anything (usually cheese and meat), fried, and covered in sauce. You can find it at just about any restaurant around here!

Puebla also claims (controversially) to be the origin of mole sauce, a dark brown sauce with variations all over Mexico. I had to do a bit of research to figure out what actually goes into mole, and from what I can tell the answer is anything and everything. The base is always chilis, but otherwise it seems like everyone has their own recipe. People add nuts, dried fruit, vegetables, spices, seeds, and even bread. The unique ingredient in mole poblano is chocolate, which apparently gives it a sweet/salty/spicy taste. I’ve been too scared to try it so far, but I know I have to at least taste it before I leave!

Another very popular food is chilaquiles—tortilla chips covered in salsa, cheese, cream, and meat or eggs. This is one of my favorites, and it’s offered just about everywhere. Most people eat it as a breakfast food, but it’s pretty versatile. The salsa can be very spicy, so it’s important to ask before you eat!

On just about every corner in Puebla, you can find tacos. They’re often sold as street food, but there are also plenty of restaurants that specialize in different varieties. I thought I was familiar with tacos, but Puebla proved me very wrong. It took me awhile to learn all the different types of tacos that are popular here, and I still get confused sometimes. First, Pueblans love tacos arabes. These are simply roasted pork served on pita bread—pretty simple. Tacos al pastor are very similar. The meat is pork, but it’s usually marinated with chilis and served on a tortilla. I also see a lot of tacos gringas. These are made with carne al pastor (like tacos al pastor), but also include cheese, pineapple, and salsa. I have trouble keeping them all straight, but according to the locals there’s a huge difference.

I have yet to try all of the Pueblan staples, which is partially because we were told during orientation to avoid street food or risk getting sick. Still, I’m a bit ashamed to have been in Puebla for two months without even tasting the famous mole poblano. I know I’ll get there—I’ve been slowly but surely stepping out of my comfort zone. The other day I even tried chapulines! They weren’t too bad for toasted grasshoppers.

Learning Mexican Spanish

This month I’ve found a few ways to finally practice my Spanish! A friend and I have started going to a coffee shop to do homework, and it turns out to be a great way to meet people. The manager found out that we were exchange students trying to learn Spanish, and now every time we’re there he comes over and practices with us. He tries to teach us colloquial words and phrases, which is a big help. For me, one of the most challenging parts of understanding Mexican Spanish is the slang. I thought that my vocabulary was alright before I came here, but I quickly realized that “classroom Spanish” isn’t very useful day-to-day. I find that I can communicate perfectly well in my classes, but outside of school I’m at a loss.

The coffee shop manager, who introduced himself as Sammy, sometimes even sits down with us for our “lessons.” It can be hard to keep up, but I try to write things down so I can look them up later. Here’s a few interesting Mexican vocab words:


  • Fresa: Fresa directly translates to strawberry, but that’s rarely what it actually means! It refers to someone who is wealthy and a bit stuck-up. In the US, a fresa would be considered “preppy.”


  • Mande: This one is important! Before Sammy told me about manda, I had always asked people to repeat themselves by asking “Cómo?” In Mexico, to ask someone what they just said, it is common to say “Mande?” Some Americans make the mistake of using “qué” because it directly translates to “what,” but this is actually considered demanding and rude!


  • A poco: “¡A poco!” means “No way!” I heard this one a few times before I asked Sammy about it. A similar word is “neta,” which pretty much means “really?”


Sammy also informed us that the owner of the coffee shop runs a gym down the street. I had been looking for a gym in Puebla—I love to jog, but during the day it’s too hot and at night it can be dangerous. We joined the gym (appropriately called “Workout”) and found that it’s another great place to practice Spanish! The man who works at the front desk is really considerate of my limitations in Spanish—he speaks especially slowly and clearly so that I can understand. And he gives a discount to UPAEP students! I usually go at night (after getting some homework done at the coffee shop), and always see the same people at the gym. I’ve talked to a few of them, but I’d like to get better at starting conversations. I just get so nervous that no one will understand me! Hopefully I’ll get over that in the next few months. It’s hard to believe that the program is already halfway through—it feels like I just got here!

Spanish Progress

I chose to study abroad in Mexico because I wanted to improve my Spanish. So far, I’m not seeing as much progress as I would like. The 11 students from OU spend a lot of time together, which is nice, but I find myself speaking in English much more than Spanish. Two of my classes are OU courses in English, and although they’re definitely fascinating, I wish I could take more courses at our host university. The two classes I do have at UPAEP are great practice in Spanish, especially because both are participation-based. However, I’ve taken plenty of classes in Spanish, and at this point I don’t think “classroom Spanish” is going to really help me improve. I need to immerse myself more in colloquial Spanish, which I think is much more challenging than formal Spanish.

One of my biggest challenges is building up the courage to talk to native speakers. I knew I struggled with this before I came to Puebla, and overcoming my fear is probably one of my biggest goals. If I’m practicing with another English-speaking student, I’m much more confident, and find that the words flow easily. But when faced with someone who actually speaks Spanish, I get so nervous! I’m afraid of them thinking poorly of me for messing up or not having the words I need. Unfortunately, making mistakes is an essential part of learning anything, especially a language. I know that I need to put myself out there and embrace that I’m not going to sound perfect all the time, but this is much easier said than done. When I’m nervous I constantly second guess even the most basic things, and end up not saying anything at all instead of taking risks like I should.

I think that this fear comes from my relationship with my grandparents. My father and his family are from Colombia, and my grandparents live in a neighborhood in New York City called “Little Colombia.” Here, they’re surrounded by other Colombian immigrants and businesses, and have never needed to learn English. My father never spoke to me in Spanish while I was growing up (even though it’s his first language), so communicating with my extended family is difficult to say the least. My grandparents have always been very invested in me learning Spanish, which is both a blessing and a curse. When I say something correctly, they practically glow with pride. But when I make mistakes or admit that I don’t know how to say something, they become visibly disappointed. I think that growing up with this dynamic has made me especially self-conscious when it comes to my Spanish skills. I have trouble keeping in mind that no one here will be disappointed when I mess up.

Another challenge is finding the stamina to speak in a nonnative language. Being surrounded by words I don’t know is pretty isolating, and I often feel drained by the end of the day. I tell myself that I’m too tired to try to make conversation with anyone, and that I’ll try again tomorrow. But time flies by—I can’t believe I’m already three weeks into the program! It’ll be over before I know it, so I really need to make myself get much-needed practice in now. After all, I don’t have these kinds of opportunities when I’m in the US.

Going forward, I think that I need to focus on finding the energy and motivation to seek out more Spanish-speaking opportunities. I know that if I force myself to practice regularly, I’ll eventually become more comfortable with imperfection. To prevent myself from feeling drained so often, I plan on taking time to recharge. I’ll put aside at least an hour of alone time every night, so that I might feel refreshed and ready to face Mexico again in the morning. I also want to become comfortable with admitting to people that I don’t understand. This will hopefully take some pressure off during conversations. I think that most people will be more than willing to help me out, as soon as I work up the courage to ask! With these changes I’m sure I’ll be able to make the most out of this amazing opportunity.

A Semester in Mexico

So far, my classes here in Puebla are great! They are all humanities courses, and a nice break from my typical math curriculum. I’m certainly writing more essays and doing more readings than I ever have before. My first class every week is an OU course with Faculty-in Residence Professor Laurel Smith. The course is called Regional Geographies of Indigenous Media. Professor Smith does a great job of bringing enthusiasm to the subject, and clearly is an expert in everything she teaches us. The small class format means that there’s plenty of opportunity to participate, which makes each class period fly by. So far, we’ve focused on Mexican Indigenous groups, and how they are using video to educate and advocate for their communities. We watch lots of these videos in class, and they are always a fascinating glimpse into the parts of Mexico that we don’t often see from the large city of Puebla.
My second OU class, also with Professor Smith, is called Environment and Society. This has quickly become my favorite class—the relationship between politics and the environment is something that I don’t often consider, and I’m constantly surprised by our lessons. I would never be taking this course if I wasn’t abroad, and I’m glad I’m getting the chance to study something outside of my major.
I am also enrolled in two classes at UPAEP, the Mexican university that is hosting us. One of these courses is Literatura del Siglo de Oro, which covers Spanish poetry during the Renaissance and Baroque periods. What I love most about this class is the diversity—there are about 10 Mexican students, as well as four American exchange students and two Chinese exchange students. Although the class is in Spanish, the professor is actually from the US, so she understands how difficult it can be to learn another language. She speaks very clearly, and makes sure to explain everything as many times as she needs to so that the whole class is on the same page. Participation counts for 50% of our grade, so I always get plenty of Spanish practice during these class periods. So far, I am pleasantly surprised at how well I am able to keep up in a class completely in Spanish!
My other UPAEP class is Service Learning—I’m not getting any needed credits for this course, but I decided to take it for the unique experience of teaching in a foreign country. We will eventually be creating and delivering lesson plans to Mexican students that are trying to learn English. I am a bit nervous about this, as I realize that although I speak English fluently, understanding and teaching its structure is a completely different skill. I’m going to start studying English grammar now, so that I can hopefully help students make sense of the language. We don’t yet know exactly who our audience will be, but there’s a possibility that we will be working with college students from indigenous communities. These students might not actually speak Spanish fluently, which could add an extra layer to the challenge. However, I hope that we do end up teaching these indigenous students—I would love to learn some of their language, and hear about their experience coming from a small community to a huge city like Puebla. Overall, I’m really looking forward to this semester!

El Hombre Lobo

When I studied abroad in Spain, I took a class on Spanish history. As a project, we had to give a presentation on a topic assigned by our professor. I was assigned an interesting historical figure—Manuel Blanco Romasanta. This small, unimposing man lived in Spain in the mid 1800’s, and became the country’s first recorded serial killer.

Romasanta was born in Galicia, Spain, north of Portugal. He was known as an intelligent youth, and could read and write (which was not very common during this time). He married young, but after the death of his wife he dedicated himself to a life as a traveling salesman and guide to people moving between Spain and Portugal. His first accusation came in 1844, when he was suspected of killing police officer Vicente Fernandez. When called to court, Romasanta fled to Nogueira, Portugal, changing his name to Antonio Gomez. He quickly befriended the women of the town, taking up sewing and cooking for neighbors. He also offered services as a guide to travelers. During the next few years, there were several mysterious disappearances of women and children traveling with “Antonio Gomez” out of Nogueira. The townspeople did not notice the trend for some time, as Romasanta would forge letters from the missing people to their family members, assuring them that they had arrived safely. But eventually, those close to the victims discovered that he was selling their clothing and belongings. Romasanta was detained and brought to trial in September of 1852. He was suspected of the murder of 13. However, he had quite the excuse—he was a werewolf.

Throughout the trial, Romasanta maintained that he was the victim of a curse that caused him to transform into a wolf. He claimed to have no control over his actions once he was transformed. To many of the spectators, this was a ridiculous attempt to avoid punishment. To the more superstitious, it was the horrifying confession of a real monster. But for certain intellectuals and scientists, it was a fascinating opportunity. They interpreted Romasanta’s claims as a case of lycanthropy, a mental condition in which the victim sincerely believes that they are an animal.

During the seven months of trial, many were convinced that Romasanta truly had no control over his murderous actions. Plenty of scientists requested the opportunity to study him, in the name of learning more about lycanthropy. One man in particular, a French doctor, paid especially close attention to the case. When Romasanta was finally condemned to death, despite his claims, the man wrote to the ministry of justice defending Romasanta and explaining his lycanthropy. He said that he had treated and cured other people suffering from the condition, and asked for a delay of the execution so that he could study the “hombre lobo.” Queen Isabel II herself changed the sentence from death to life incarceration. Unfortunately, Romasanta died in prison before the doctor could meet him.

We’ll never know if Manuel Blanco Romasanta truly was suffering from lycanthropy, or simply lied to avoid the death sentence. But it’s certain that his unique case changed the way that Spain tried its criminals. Never before had criminal psychology been so emphasized or considered during sentencing. But ever since the unforgettable trial of the “hombre lobo,” Spainish psychologists have been present in the courtroom, striving to understand and learn how to prevent violent crimes.


Next semester I will be studying in Puebla, Mexico for my semester abroad. I decided to dedicate a blog post to this city that I have not yet been to, but am so excited to spend the next few months in. I’ve heard nothing but amazing things about OU’s study abroad program at the Universidad Popular Autónoma del Estado de Puebla. I have no doubt that I’ll enjoy my time there, and hopefully I’ll come back to Oklahoma speaking Spanish!

I chose Puebla as opposed to other Spanish-speaking study abroad locations for several reasons. First of all, I have heard wonderful things about the city itself. I have never been to Mexico before, and I would love for my first experience to be somewhere as lively and diverse as Puebla. From what I understand, the city is a great balance of well-preserved historical neighborhoods and modern city centers. This seems like the perfect way to simultaneously get to know the Mexico of today and learn about the nation’s past.

I am also really looking forward to learning Mexican Spanish. I spoke with Armando Garcia, the director of the OU center in Puebla, and he told me that by 2060, around one third of the US population will identify as Hispanic. Of this third, the majority will identify as Mexican. With this kind of growth, it seems like Mexican Spanish is only going to be more and more important. Having been to Argentina, Uruguay, Costa Rica, and Spain, I have seen firsthand that separate dialects of Spanish can be extremely different. It’s incredible how uniquely each region has shaped their version of the language. If I am going to be immersed in a certain dialect, I would love for it to be Mexican. Hopefully, when I return I will be able to communicate more easily with all Spanish speakers, especially those of Mexican descent.

Something I’m especially looking forward to is Cinco de Mayo in Puebla. I learned recently that the holiday actually commemorates the 1862 Battle of Puebla. Napoleon’s France invaded Mexico in an attempt to claim territory and found a colony in the struggling nation. On May 5, 1862 they approached Puebla, certain that it would fall easily. However, the French were thwarted by the Mexican army, which fought from daybreak to nightfall to defend their city. Although this did not put an end to the war, it did wonders to boost Mexican morale and bolster the confidence of their troops. Six years later, French forces withdrew completely after being met time after time with a Mexican army that refused to surrender their nation. Ever since, the 5th of May has been a celebrated day in Puebla. They put on reenactments, a huge parade, and host over 300,000 visitors. I can’t wait to witness this famous holiday at its heart!

I’m so excited to get to know Puebla. A few of the other OU students going with me have actually studied abroad there before, and loved it so much that they wanted to go back! I’ll be with great people who know the area, and hopefully will help me learn as much as I can about the city.

Indonesia and the World

I am always so impressed with the events put on by OU’s College of International Studies. They organize talks with fascinating speakers from all over the world, giving students easy access to diverse and unique perspectives. Last month they brought in Dr. Nana Yuliana, the Consul General of the Republic of Indonesia, to speak with us about Indonesia’s growth and continued efforts for global engagement.

Dr. Yuliana began by showing us a video titled “Wonderful Indonesia,” a vibrant visual tour of Indonesia that won the “Best Tourism Promotion Video” in a competition held by the United Nations World Tourism Organization (here’s a link: She then introduced herself and gave a brief personal history, describing her education at the University of Jakarta and career in Indonesian politics.

Through a pop quiz given by Dr. Yuliana, I learned quite a bit about Indonesia. For starters, it is the largest archipelagic country in the world, with around 17,000 islands! There is a booming population of 252 million. I was surprised to learn that Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world, with 87.2% of Indonesians identifying as Muslim. The nation is also the third largest democracy in the world, following India and the USA. In other ways too, Indonesia sets a progressive example. Dr. Yuliana spoke to us about how proud she is of her country’s recent emphasis on putting women in governmental positions. She described the movement as a push for a government that reflects the country’s demographic.

For the rest of the presentation, Dr. Yuliana focused on Indonesia’s international affairs. She told us that Sukarno, the first president of Indonesia (after the country became independent from Japan in 1945), founded the Asian-African Conference. This meeting of newly independent Asian and African states worked to begin a movement against colonialism. This set a precedent for Indonesia taking initiative in global affairs. Dr. Yuliana told us that in her eyes, Indonesia’s priorities of foreign policy fall into four categories: economic diplomacy, maritime diplomacy, protection of Indonesian citizens and legal entities overseas, and international fora.  What I found most interesting about this was the concern for Indonesians overseas. Apparently there are many Indonesian migrant workers in the Middle East, and there is great concern about their treatment. Indonesia is very active in combating human rights violations, and ranks 8th globally in number of UN Peacekeepers. It is also a current candidate for non-permanent member of the UN security council. Dr. Yuliana asked for our help in this. She said that having a general sentiment of support in the US would mean a lot to Indonesia’s efforts.

I thoroughly enjoyed all of Dr. Yuliana’s presentation, and I definitely wasn’t alone. At the end of the talk she took questions from the audience, and there was no shortage of hands raised. I’m glad I didn’t miss this event—I learned an incredible amount about not only Indonesia, but the entire global community.

Spanish Club Fall 2017

This semester I continued to enjoy OU’s Spanish Club. It was not a hard decision to keep participating this year—I had such a great time last year, and got a lot out of every meeting! I’ve found that Spanish Club isn’t just good for having fun; I also learn tons about culture and language just about every time we meet.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t attend all of meetings, as the service organization I’m in meets at the same time as Spanish Club. I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to divide my time well and balance the two activities, but it wasn’t too much of a problem. I sometimes had to arrive late to Spanish Club, but for the most part I got to enjoy both organizations.

My favorite thing about Spanish Club is that there is an emphasis on learning. Last semester they brought in Enrique Villar-Gambetta, the Honorary Consul of Peru in Oklahoma, to speak to us about how to use Spanish in our future careers. I got so much out of that meeting, and was really impressed that the officers of the club had taken so much initiative to find a guest speaker that could really influence, educate, and inspire members. This year, the club continued to be very useful and interesting for me, especially as I prepared to spend a semester in Mexico. All meetings end with brief conversation in Spanish, just to provide an opportunity for practice. I also really enjoyed the cultural team trivia night, in part because before the event started there was a 15-minute beginner’s Spanish lesson! I find that as I take higher and higher level Spanish classes, I actually forget a good deal of my basic grammar and vocabulary. The Spanish lesson was a great refresher, and I also got to find out a lot about Spanish culture during the trivia games!

The club also sets aside plenty of time for fun. One meeting that I thought was an especially cool idea was the sugar skull decorating party. I showed up to the event half an hour late, after I got out of chapter, but I was just in time to see the cool designs that everyone had made on their skull templates. There was also a “graveyard” pudding bar where we could decorate cups of chocolate pudding with cookie pieces and candy. It definitely got everyone into the Día de los Muertos/Halloween spirit!

I’ll miss Spanish Club while I’m studying abroad, but I’ll definitely get back into it next year. Hopefully I’ll come back with a new perspective on Mexican culture and a greater understanding of the Spanish language. I know I’ll have a wonderful community of like-minded students to share it with!

Día de los Muertos

La Ofrenda Comunitaria
La Ofrenda Comunitaria

Last year I went to the HASA Day of the Dead street festival, and loved it. This year I went back, and was not disappointed! I went in the evening, so the lights of the performers, carnival rides, and fireworks were stunning. The first thing I noticed when I walked into the Lloyd Noble lot was a long table full of sugar skulls and framed pictures. It was a community altar, decorated with bright tissue paper flowers and candles. Those who had lost loved ones could place a picture of them on the alter, to be surrounded by unique sugar skulls. It seemed like the skulls had been a blank template, but each one was painted differently. I tried to get a good picture of the alter, but it was constantly surrounded by people looking at the beautiful handmade decorations and paying their respects.

There was plenty to look at inside the festival—I especially loved watching the dancers that performed all around the lot. They wore traditional costumes and elaborate face paint, and spun around glow sticks and hoops. It was hypnotizing at night! I didn’t get to see any of the scheduled musical performances, but I heard that they were impressive. There was a large stage set up on one side of the lot, with plenty of room in front of it for dancing and watching the acts.

Besides watching the performances, attendees could go on tons of carnival rides, shop at a variety of vendor booths set up under a large tent, and grab food from the many food trucks parked at the festival. I didn’t go on any rides, but I definitely enjoyed looking at their lights and listening to the lively music around the carnival area. Unfortunately, some of the vendors had already packed up by the time I got there, but it was still fun to look at all of the handmade local goods that were still for sale. Many of the food trucks offered authentic Hispanic food—my friend and I split a plate of delicious carne asada tacos. There were also lots of trucks with different types of food—we tried some pineapple salsa, which was interesting. I stayed at the festival much longer than I had planned to because there was just so much to see and do!

The festival really seemed to be fun for absolutely everyone. I loved seeing that the attendees were a mix of families and college students. Many people were Hispanic, and many were not—signs were in both Spanish and English. I think the festival did an amazing job of both welcoming Mexican Americans to a celebration of their culture and inviting in non-Hispanics to learn about an incredible tradition.

Latin Americanist Lunch: Favela Tourism

Recently I attended the final Latin Americanist Lunch of the semester. The guest speaker was Bianca Freire-Medeiros, a professor and writer from Sao Paulo, Brazil. She gave a presentation titled “Twenty-five Years of Favela Tourism: Continuities, Changes, and Challenges.” I was interested in learning more about this topic, as I had read “The Spectacular Favela” in my “Understanding the Global Community” class last year. The book explored favelas as a spectacle for the rest of the world, and explained the history of tourism in Rocinha, the largest favela in Brazil.

Freire-Medeiros also focused her talk on Rocinha, as this was allegedly the first favela to be marketed as a tourist attraction. It is located in southern Rio, and is home to around 70,000 people. She explained how dangerous and unglamorous favelas are, and then explained how they are portrayed in the media.

In reality, violence and crime runs rampant in favelas. In fact, gangs are such a staple of favelas that they form a type of informal government. Gangs take care of mail delivery and trash collection, trying to gain the trust and support of residents in their territory. Ironically, police are often extremely corrupt, and generally distrusted. I remember watching a documentary last year about gangs in favelas. It highlighted the police as violent and susceptible to bribery, while showing the gangs as peace-keepers.

Apparently, this drama is what attracts tourists to the favelas and allows tourism companies to exist there. Especially with the Olympic Games and World Cup taking place in Rio, there has recently been a huge rise in tourism. It is not unusual to see groups of tourists, armed with cameras, riding in brand new Jeep Wranglers down favela streets. The favela way of life is incredibly romanticized by tourism companies, which paint an unrealistic picture of the slums. Many of the tourists are excited by the “danger” of venturing into a favela. Tour guides capitalize on this, frequently telling visitors to keep their heads down and move quickly and quietly when they are on foot.

Freire-Medeiros also mentioned the romanticizing of favelas in popular media. She played clips from several rap songs that make reference to favelas as exciting, cool places, and showed us the website for a clothing line that markets “favela” style clothing. Apparently there is a ritzy bar in Paris called “Favela Chic.” With this kind of advertising, all the tourism industry has to do is set up camp in Rio and wait for the customers to pour in.

However, favela tourism isn’t black-and-white. While it is largely resented by residents, in some cases it helps them. Freire-Medeiros explained that sometimes favela residents open their own tours, offering an “authentic experience.” This helps them to make a living, even though it does come at the expense of their neighbors.

Still, it can be widely agreed that favela tourism is exploitive and a negative phenomenon. At the end of her presentation, Freire-Medeiros asked us to brainstorm ways to put an end to this industry. No definitive answers were given. I think that a great deal of interest in favelas comes from its mention in popular media, and that if this disappears then public interest will gradually fade. But this is easier said than done—where there is money to be made, business will thrive. And unfortunately, favelas are clearly a lucrative attraction.