Author: Eileen Sullivan

  • Language Preference in Childhood

    Learning a language involves selection and de-skilling. We think that we are teaching our children to speak when we repeat phrases to them slowly, when we withhold a prized object until they articulate the right word, when we prompt them to repeat courtesy formulas such as “Thank you.” In a sense, of course, this is true. Nonetheless, when you consider that babies are born with the ability to produce all the sounds that occur in all the human languages, we are actually de-skilling them: teaching them to pay attention to some sounds and ignore others. By the time they are seven, these children will begin to lose this linguistic aptitude altogether, and by the time they are 12, they will probably never get the pronunciation of a foreign language quite right.

  • October 8, International Galleon Day

    Try to imagine a heavily-sailed wooden ship, four decks high, carrying 100 cannons, and weighing 250 tons when fully loaded. That describes the “floating castles” that carried one-third of the silver produced in America to Manila, in the Philippine Islands, where it was exchanged for rich goods coming from as far away as India. These goods included silks and spices, gems, porcelain, inlaid chests and furniture, ivory items and painted screens. The galleon trade route constituted the longest voyage ever made without landfall, the longest commercial route in history, and the commercial route used for the longest time. A galleon on this route was often referred to as the “Nao de China,” owing to the origin of many of the products it carried. These exotic items could be re-sold for 3 times their value. The profits were great, but so was the danger. Particularly dangerous was the return route to America. The northern Pacific was so far uncharted, and five failed attempts to sail back to America had already been made. King Phillip II was interested both in evangelizing the Philippines and establishing a trade route which would avoid conflict with the Portuguese, who had already achieved a highly remunerative spice trade by their presence in the Moluccas Islands.

  • Applying the Cosmovision of Nahuatl to the Problem of Textile Waste

    Throw-away clothing used to refer to special biodegradable garments. Not these days. I was just listening to a radio program highlighting the toxic effects of throw-away clothing, referring to clothing perceived as so cheap that there is no point in holding onto it. Going into the dumpster are left-over textiles, unpurchased marked-down garments, never-worn purchased clothing, and clothing deemed unfashionable after one season. From the dumpster, they are carted off to the ground fill—a big mistake, because synthetic materials are highly contaminating. The report referred to the US, but I believe that the cautionary message is equally applicable to Mexico. In Mexico, the market is flooded with clothing manufactured in India, Pakistan and China and other countries where, owing to sweatshop-wages, production has displaced more proximate traditional producers such as the Dominican Republic, and of course, Mexico itself.

  • Gumdrop or Guiso?

    What is considered tasty in one culture may be regarded as disgusting in another. Further, perceptions differ regarding what is nourishing or toxic--or what is a vegetable, what a dessert ingredient. North of the border, squash is a vegetable; to the south, it’s dessert. Here is another example. In Mexico, piper auritum is a popular herb for cooking (guisando) whereas in the U.S. it is today virtually unknown. In the state of Veracruz, piper auritum is usually called acuyo, although in other parts of Mexico it is called hoja santa, Its aromatic leaves are very popular for flavoring fish, barbecued beef, and tamales. I have a neighbor who even puts it into the tamales that she makes with mole. It took me a while to identify this plant in the wild, although once I discovered it, I realized it grew everywhere. It is recognizable by its heart-shaped velvety leaves. Although it sometimes reaches heights of more than six feet, even a small plant will soon produce sufficiently large leaves for cooking and even wrapping tamal-style. After acquiring this basic knowledge of acuyo—which I had never tasted in central Mexico--I still had a couple of things to learn. One was that this herb is believed to have medicinal properties. One afternoon on the way to the Humanities School, I passed the lodgings of a student who was leaning on the red tile roof of his room with a leaf clapped against his cheek. When I asked him what the trouble was, he said that he had a toothache and was trying to calm it with some tlanepa. So that is how I learned the nahuatl name for the plant.

  • How to Educate an American Child in Jakarta

    I am, in truth, familiar with two cases of parents who educated their American children in Jakarta. (Readers must draw their own conclusions regarding the “how.”) One is that of an American diplomat and his wife, whom I met here some years ago; the other, Ann Dunham Obama Soetoro. The sons of both families spent their childhood in Indonesia. Now, a diplomat can easily arrange an elite school, even a bilingual school, in any country; Ann and her husband Lolo, however, were fresh out graduate school, starting up married life in an impoverished land. Ann got up at 4 a.m. to teach English to Barack. He didn’t like it very much. “It’s no picnic for me either, buster,” she said, and stuck to her agenda.

  • In Search Of Springerles

    At Christmas time my mind invariably turns to springerles. Those pale, rectangular cookies-- redolent with anise and embossed with charming floral and animal designs--never failed to grace the family tray of Christmas cookies. My search for the springerles of my youth has spanned almost 50 years. Although I did not know it at the time, this cookie originated in southwest Germany, in what was then 15th century Swabia. This area was the origin of many of the settlers in my hometown in Pennsylvania. In the case of my own family, my great-great grandmother Dorothea came from Zwiebruchen, in the Black Forest, where--a German scholar once told me--they are famous for their cooking. My mother, however, usually got her springerles at bakeries where some of the clerks added up your purchases in German. The stores had names like "Sontheimer" and "Rusterholtz." When my children were born in Mexico, I was keen to perpetuate the customs of my own culture, so I brought with me a carved rolling pin and experimented with a recipe from the afamed Joy of Cooking. The results were dismal. Instead of producing the light texture and fragile top crust with a well-defined design, I got uniformly hard and blobby-looking rectangles. (I recently read that the name springerle means “little jumper,” referring perhaps to that pop-up top I was unable to achieve.) My husband nicknamed my leaden cookies “piedras” (stones), and cheerfully dunked them in his coffee, requesting that I make more, adding lime zest.

  • The Legacy of Fernando Morales Matus, UV Professor and Marimba Virtuoso

    If you walked past him on the sidewalk, you might not notice Fernando Matus (as everyone called him.) His slight figure and austere clothing made him inconspicuous. A more careful observer, however, would immediately notice his rapid, determined pace. This briskness characterized his daily walks from his home to the Musical Initiation School (CIMI) downtown, to the Music Faculty, and to other venues where he collaborated with a variety of musicians. Nothing in his unassuming manner would prepare you to see him dressed in tails, standing next to his marimba in front of a full orchestra, two mallets in each hand, drawing incredibly lush sounds from an instrument which he himself had constructed. The Encyclopedia of Percussion describes him as a virtuoso. Indeed, his technique was an extraordinary personal achievement. Composer Francisco Gonzalez-- wanting to include the marimba in a piece he was writing-- once asked Prof. Matus how to treat the marimba: “Like a violin,” he said. González goes on to say: “I wrote the second movement of my marimba sonata with a sustained tremolo. I dared to do that because I had heard the maestro make the marimba “sing” on and on, even though the sound of the marimba supposedly dies out quickly. . . but he could make the marimba vibrate like an organ playing a Bach chorale.” Indeed, Morales Matus included Bach and other composers of the Western canon in his recitals.