...except for me and my monkey! "Everything we see hides another thing. We always want to see what is hidden by what we see." -Rene Magritte

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Palta and mani

Sometimes there are teachers at the summer school who comes up from Mexico on some kind of educational exchange to observe how things are done here, the techniques used to teach English, how the Mexican and Mexican-American kids are faring in our school system. Often these teachers also rotate classrooms over the four weeks, teaching lessons about Mexican culture or dance. The exchange teacher this year is a woman from the state of Hidalgo. Yesterday she brought over a video of an open-air market in Hidalgo and showed the kids these laminated posters about the different kinds of fruits that grow in Mexico.

There were strawberries, and bananas, and oranges, and peanuts, and avocados, and membrillo, which doesn't even translate because no one eats it in the US. And as she talked, I got a little sad, because the open-air Mexican market made me think of the Mercado Central de Valparaíso, which I passed every day walking from the Casa Central of the University to Gimpert, the building where most of my classes were, or walking from class to the bus stop where I would catch "La Catorce," Number 14, the Little Orange Bus That Could, back to the apartment in Viña. The Mercado in Valpo was a huge orange building, intimidating and dark on the inside, crammed with vendors selling every kind of fruit and vegetable imaginable, as well as baskets, cheeses, eggs, chickens, you name it. Stray dogs and cats roamed the sidewalks in front of it. I never ventured into the market itself to buy fruit--I was a little intimidated, frankly--but I passed by the outside sidewalk vendors every day and often bought oranges, avocados, or strawberries. The whistles and catcalls of the men hanging around outside frustrated and intimidated me at first, but eventually I came to ignore them (until mid-December, when, fed up with a lot of things about the university system, I flipped a guy off).

Each fruit that the Mexican teacher mentioned had a Chilean memory associated with it, and as I listened to her name and describe them in Mexican Spanish, it was impossible for me not to translate them to Chilean Spanish in my head.

Fresa, strawberry, became frutilla, which literally means just "little fruit." As far as I know, Chileans are the only ones to call strawberries by this name. Once I bought some somewhere in southern Chile, and the vendor looked at me and said, "I think you guys call them fresas where you're from." I never did find out where she thought I was from, but I think maybe Argentina.

In Chile, a peanut is un maní, not un cacahuate, and an avocado is una palta, not un acuacate. Cacachuate and acuacate, I was told, were only to be used in Mexico, since they come from the Aztec language. Palta was one of the best foods in Chile and was eaten almost every day, scooped out and mashed up with salt and olive oil then spread on delicious pan batido, a kind of Chilean bread that tastes like baguette, or with mayonnaise, tomatos, and beef in a churrasco, a kind of hamburger, Chilean-style.

It's hard to believe it, but one year ago today, I left for Chile. How I miss it.