Sunday, November 28, 2010


When I lived in Laredo and worked for a certain international department store, I decided I wanted to branch out and move to Puerto Rico. I guess you could say I had island fever—I wanted to live in the Caribbean. Luckily the store I worked for had its international headquarters in San Juan at that time. I asked for a transfer there and, unbelievably, received one.

About six months before moving there, I subscribed to a Puerto Rican newspaper in hopes of learning all I could about the island and its culture. There was one thing, however, that bothered me in that paper. I frequently noticed ads that said, “Los Chavos? Dónde están? Están en el Banco Nacional.” I didn’t have a clue what “chavos” were. I asked my Laredo friends, Spanish speakers, each and everyone, for the translation of “chavos”. No one knew. One friend suggested that maybe they meant chivas, but why would anyone keep goats in a bank?

After arriving in Puerto Rico and getting settled in our small hotel [temporary lodging until I knew in which store on the island I would be working and it also became the setting for my first published novel The Pig Farm], I decided my son and I should take city buses and tour San Juan. This was something I had done many times in México City and I felt quite comfortable doing it.

I looked around for a Parada de Autobús or Parada de Camión but all I could see was a Parada de Guagua. Huh? Gua-gua meant woof-woof or bow-wow, didn’t it? I thought, Why would there be a parada for barking dogs?

Now, if you’re thinking that Parada de Guagua fooled me, you’d be wrong. I knew it was the bus stop. A bus pulled up and stopped there.

So, grabbing my son’s hand, we prepared to board the guagua. As I stepped up, I politely asked the driver, “¿Cuánto es?”

“Diez chavitos,” he replied.

“¿Cómo?” I asked.

“You don’t speak Spanish,” he said. “Ten cents.”

“Sí, hablo español,” I said as I handed him a dime. Just what language was he speaking, I wondered.


As we sat there enjoying our first Puerto Rican bus ride, I wondered if there was anything else that transplanted Laredoans (I'm originally from Oklahoma) might encounter with an offbeat translation.

After returning from our bus ride, I asked my son if he would like to go to the little restaurant around the corner and get something to eat.

As I read the menu I knew we were in trouble. The only juice offered in this restaurant on a tropical Caribbean island was jugo de china. Who in their right mind would drink Chinese juice??

To be continued . . .

Sunday, November 7, 2010



(Originally published in Pensamientos--Está Aquí)

In the coming months I hope to share with you a few humorous incidents that occurred during my travels in the Spanish and Portuguese speaking world.

Many years ago I worked as a bilingual receptionist/switchboard operator in an international department store in Laredo, Texas. I received calls in both Spanish and English and for the most part had no problem transferring them to the proper department. This was one of the easiest and most enjoyable jobs I’ve ever had and believe me I’ve had a great variety over the years.

One morning, however, as I answered my little switchboard, a rather gruff male Anglo voice demanded, “Gimme Krat!”

Now, I had no idea what a “krat” was and asked the gentleman to repeat his request.

“Gimme krat!”

“Uh, I beg your pardon, sir, what department is that in?”

“The krat department!”

After a few rounds of getting nowhere with this gentleman, I decided to strike out on my own. Obviously I had no idea what a “krat” was, but I thought that maybe it was an auto part since I knew next to nothing about auto parts. Besides, I figured that if that was the wrong department, the auto clerk would tell me which one. So, I connected the call to the Automotive Department and right on cue, the Automotive light blinked back. I answered with anticipation expecting to be told the right department. However, the clerk said hurriedly “You’ve got the wrong department!” and hung up.

Realizing that I would get nowhere if I asked the gentleman to repeat himself, I boldly plunged ahead and transferred the call to the Service Department. Surely someone there would know anything and everything about "krats”. A few minutes later the Service Department light blinked and as I answered the clerk said, “You’ve got the wrong department!” and hung up.

Being ever enterprising I decided to try all of the departments until I found the right one. I sent the call to Men’s Clothing, Sports, Shoes, and was told by each one that I had the wrong department. Finally, in desperation I tried Women’s Wear although I didn’t think that a krat was an article of feminine adornment. And that, amigos y amigas, is where I found my answer.

The Women’s Wear light blinked and as I answered, the saleslady said quite concisely, “El señor quiere el departamento de crédito.”

Ah, Spanish, such a lovely language—so clear and understandable—a phonetic language where one can’t help but understand every word, every syllable. ¿Crédito-credit-krat? ¡Increíble!

Of course, anywhere one goes in the Spanish-speaking world, the language can be understood quite easily, right? Spanish speakers would never mangle a word like crédito.

And Spanish in one country is the same in all the others, wouldn’t you think? Take the word guagua, for example. Would someone transferred from Laredo, Texas to San Juan, Puerto Rico have a problem with a word like that?

To be continued . . .

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Tributes: Tony Hillerman and John Leonard

(Originally posted December 2008)
Two of my favorite literary people died recently: two diverse men who entertained and enlightened me profoundly. Tony Hillerman wrote enchanting mysteries in and around Navajo country. I first learned of him in an interview on the Today Show in 1989. That summer I read seven of his novels, beginning with Listening Woman, a Joe Leaphorn novel, followed by People of Darkness featuring Jim Chee. Leaphorn and Chee, fictional policemen of the Navajo Nation, immediately became my literary heroes. Every year since then I have looked forward to at least one new Hillerman novel and I feared the day when there would be no more. Sadly, that day has come. During the school year of 1993/94, I lived in Cortez, Colorado and sometimes did substitute teaching on the nearby Ute Reservation. I remember standing by a large window in the classroom and gazing out at the surrounding desert scenery, especially the mesas in the distance, and thought about my favorite Navajo policemen. On the classroom shelves sat the books of Hillerman--the books of Indian Country. I don't know if they were required reading but I have heard that students learned more about their culture from Tony's books than they did living within it. Not all of his books were about Leaphorn and Chee. One of my favorites was Finding Moon, which took place in Southeast Asia. Wherever the setting, Tony Hillerman was a master storyteller and I will miss him profoundly.

My encounters with John Leonard were his regular appearances as a critic on The CBS Sunday Morning Show and that remained the only place where I saw him. But from the beginning, I was enthralled by him and his segment was my favorite part of that charming program. Most of the time I didn't understand a word he said but when I did, I was not only thrilled but also agreed with him. He critiqued everything--from books to movies to TV programs to music. Books, however, were what intrigued me the most. However, I only read one book that he recommended, The Witches’ Hammer by Jane Stanton Hitchcock, and when I finished it, I was puzzled as to why he had recommended it. Kurt Vonnegut once called him "the smartest man who ever lived." He was also a TV critic for New York magazine, book critic for The Nation, and among many other accomplishments, the author of numerous books.

These were two men who gave immeasurable pleasure yet were as unlike each other as two literary men could be.