Converting into a coffee drinker and loosening Latin tongues

Today I love writing for the coffee industry, and I love coffee, but it’s not always been (bean?) like that. Like a good Catholic, it’s time to confess.

I had my first taste of coffee fourteen years ago. It was two in the morning during finals week, with twenty pages left to write. Like Ramen and Sriracha, coffee was one of those college-kid staples that didn’t click with me. My nebulous memory of that, and a handful of other desperate nights alone with a bulging coffeepot and blank screen, involved twitching fingers over the keyboard, a vow to never do that again, and a wow at the grade I pulled off. I owed it to coffee, but swore off caffeine and procrastination once I tossed my tasseled mortarboard.

Seven years passed calmly, without coffee, until I landed in Colombia, the land of coffee. I imbibed in the free-flowing firewater (aguardiente) that revelers poured into the shot glasses strung around my neck. I gnawed on gelatinous strips of deep-fried pork rind (chicharrón), pretending that the row of teeth looked more like a bear claw danish than an animal spine. I nibbled a razor-sharp Communion wafer (hostia) until I observed the true Catholics letting it dissolve on their tongue. This former teetotaler, vegetarian, and Christian was quickly, albeit temporarily, converting out of cultural respect and curiousity. But the very waft of coffee brought back a wave of nausea, tremors, and profound regret.

No soup for you, but two bowls for you

Colombians have an acutely accurate proverb to describe what was about to become my experience with coffee (ditto for loud partying, greasy meat, and Catholic churches): “Al que no le gusta el caldo, le dan dos tazas.” It’s the polar opposite of Seinfield’s Soup Nazi, where even if you love the soup, “no soup for you”: If you do not want any soup, you’re given two bowlfuls.

It was not a Colombian who introduced me to coffee done right; it was an Italian. I’m enamoured with Italy: the expressive language, the svelte fashion sense, the ten-course meals. The food and the wine, oh yes, but in all I’ve gleaned about Italy I somehow glossed over the essential role of the espresso.

I learned to take espresso because it was given to me by an Italian. Or rather, it was ordered. “Dos tintos,” barked my new boss over the phone to the office runner. I had no choice in the matter. Down in the kitchen the server had already offered me coffee a couple of times that week and I had politely declined, “Oh, I don’t drink coffee, but thank you.”

Now she stood in front of the executive desk with a silver platter and a glimmer in her dark eyes as she asked how many teaspoons of sugar I’d like. I followed the Italian’s lead and accepted it black. It appeared innocent in a dainty white porcelain cup, but I could catch the gleam of the heavy black liquid. The heady aroma reeked of past regrets.

Like dancing a tango, I followed the man’s lead. He sipped, in silence, savoring. Then it was my turn. It was unsavory, but I enjoyed the silence. The first swallow loosened the tongue. As he explained my role as the organization’s in-house translator between Spanish and English, I hoped my tongue would also navigate the explosive Zs and Chs of Italian.

Sipping and conversing, we were two foreigners united by Colombian coffee and a need for common ground: language. We did our best in Spanish, lapsing into mother tongues when necessary. Two cups clinked gently on saucers, two or three times and it was over. The discussion was done, the tinto was gone. I hadn’t even realized that I’d finished the entire espresso; time went by that fast. Entirely unlike the early dawn hours of caffeine-induced insomnia to meet deadlines.

My life lesson from Colombian coffee

Among the many factors that determine a pleasant gastronomic experience are the food or beverage itself–quality, portion, preparation–and the setting in which it’s consumed–company, occassion, ambience. My only experience with coffee had been drinking an entire pot of hastily-made, discount-priced drip grinds, all alone and under stressful circumstances. I had been doing it all wrong, on all counts.

Colombia taught me to enjoy tinteando, the art of solely savoring small portions of black coffee in pleasant company.

A couple of years after I learned to drink espresso, we also acquired a Nespresso Aeroccino and learned the art of making cappuccinos and the science of baking pastries, but that’s a whole nother story that involves a couple of pounds of over-indulged guilt (can you say, biscotti?).

Drinking American coffee after learning to tintear in Colombia

Would you like to supersize that?

Which brings me back to America. Exactly one year ago I returned to the United States, and knowing that we’d moved from abroad with nothing but heavy books and pounds of Colombian coffee, our landlady salvaged some perfectly good things the lazy former tenants had left to be tossed in the trash.

Useful item 1 is this ugly mug. Other than the garish green handle that clashes hideously with the red hide of some trophy hunter, what alarmed me was its size. Here it looms over a Café de Colombia pocillo, just big enough for a tinto.


When you fill a mug that large with a hot beverage, you have to drink it all in one sitting, otherwise it gets ruined in the reheat cycle. Chugging that much coffee does a number on your system. Drinking the same amount, spread out over a couple of hours at work or socializing, is more tolerable. Apply the same rules of thumb to caffeine as with alcohol–small doses, over a long period, lots of water in between, and never by yourself.

I see café customer behavior as a major difference between the United States and Latin American, and even European culture. In the U.S., customers commonly order coffee to-go and in a disposable cup, then scald themselves trying to swig it while rushing down the sidewalk (and promptly file a lawsuit). No wonder we’re stressed-out: the caffeine is not to blame so much as the hectic (and wasteful) form of consuming it.

Don’t walk with coffee; talk with coffee.

In Latin American cafés (and so I hear, European cafés, and please share if anywhere else), drinking coffe is an idle and enjoyable affair. It’s a time to sit down to consume, to observe, to converse, to socialize. Coffee is sipped, not gulped, amid dialogue. Or it’s a natural break in the work day, but office kitchens are stocked with ceramic mugs and not styrofoam cups. How can anything be slowly savored out of an artificial container designed for speedy disposal?

If you are decidely a tea person, or have bad flashbacks of cramming at term time with coffee, I challenge you to try the attitude behind tinteando. Sip a well-crafted espresso in pleasant company. For you to have a conversion moment like mine, the coffee doesn’t have to be Colombian, and the company doesn’t have to be Italian. Heck, try it with Folgers and your best friend. But you must follow the Colombian pocillo portion and the Italian philosophy behind Slow Food. Ah, la dolce vita.

Building bridges, not walls, over troubled waters through translation

As walls are erected between countries, translation builds bridges between cultures.

As human migrations are stymied, translation lifts linguistic barriers to ease the flow of communication.

As tensions rise with cultural misunderstandings, translation breaks down language boundaries to find common ground.


Whether you speak with an Andalusian or Argentinian accent, it is all Spanish.

Whether you are Colombian, Mexican, or Canadian, we are all Americans.

Whether you live in the east or west, south or north of the globe, we are all humans.


Author crossing river in Quindío, Colombia. La autora cruzando un río en Quindío, Colombia.

Mientras que se erigen muros entre los países, la traducción construye puentes entre las culturas.

Mientras que se obstaculizan las migraciones humanas, la traducción levanta las barreras lingüísticas para facilitar el flujo de la comunicación.

Mientras que aumentan las tensiones con malentendidos culturales, la traducción traspasa las fronteras del idioma para encontrar terreno común.


Ya sea que usted hable con acento andaluz o argentino, todo es español.

Ya sea que usted sea colombiano, mexicano o canadiense, todos somos americanos.

Ya sea que usted viva en el este u oeste, sur o norte del globo, todos somos seres humanos.

Denton unites at Black Film Festival

The Denton Black Film Festival has begun.

Last evening’s opening reception was centered around a multi-media art exhibit on Fruitvale Station, imagining if the victim’s unjust outcome could have been reversed.

At a time when Americans are wondering what the future holds for a nation divided by racism, let this festival bring us together to contemplate and unite through the seventh art.dbff-poster

Discover Denton is covering the event. Check out my reviews of a few films that will be screened this weekend:

Baseball provides life lessons in “Take Me Out”

“Priyanth” motivates through fear; “Rise Up” shows story of MLK and Malcolm X.

On Friday, January 27th I’ll be covering the conversation with storyteller and film director Ya’Ke Smith* at UNT on the Square. The 75-minute workshop starts at 3:30 pm and admission is free.

Hope to see you at the festival this week!

*Unfortunately, the Ya’Ke Smith workshop was cancelled at the last minute due to a family emergency. Instead, on Saturday night I captured fragments of flying poetry at the Spoken Word Open Mic, followed by the grand poetry slam. Words to inspire, analyze, and catalyze.



Quitarse el (s)(c)(z)ombrero por Hispanic Heritage Month

Con danzas y disfraces, con comida y fiesta, y sobre todo con orgullo los latinos en los Estados Unidos celebran este mes Hispanic Heritage Month.

Entre la diversidad de orígenes nacionales, de razas y raíces que se extienden desde Big Sur hasta el Cono Sur, con diferentes sabores y colores, hay una cosa que unifica a todas las personas hispanas: el español.

No importa si en la calle hablan jerga chicana o chilena, si beben chicha o cerveza, si se juntan dos latinos se pueden comunicar en el castellano.

Para que se entiendan, el idioma tiene unas reglas gramaticales. En algún momento, todos tenían que ponerse de acuerdo si esa cosa redonda sobre la cabeza hay que llamarla “sombrero”, “combrero” o “zombrero”. Así el (s)(c)(z)ombrerero sabrá cómo deletrear el letrero para su tienda.


Jamás comprarías un “combrero” en promoción (y mucho menos en “promosión”) si todo el mundo ya lo llamaba un “sombrero”. Con tal ortografía, ¿como sería la calidad de su producto? Obviamente el artesano no se fija en las detalles. Con un sombrero fino, los detalles son todo, y del mismo modo con las palabras.

Cambiar la C por la S cambia todo el sentido y lleva a malentendidos. Sin estructura y ortografía universalmente aceptada, habrá caos en el idioma.

La Real Academia Española resuelve las discusiones sobre nuevas palabras y cual versión es aceptable. Es una fuente de referencia para dudas, pero la mayoría de nosotros no pasamos el tiempo con la nariz metida en un diccionario. Estamos por fuera, dando paseos, comprando, comiendo, visitando lugares de interés. O navegando el web, leyendo las noticias, chateando en línea, surfeando sitios de comercio.

Aquí se pone en peligro la lengua. Aquí se pierde la educación.

Para poder escribir bien, hay que leer cosas bien escritas. Bien sea por ignorancia, por baja escolaridad, por flojera, o por la prisa de publicar, muchos latinoamericanos no escriben bien el español. Cuando leen una comunicación mal escrita muchas veces, en muchos sitios públicos, y más si es por instituciones respetadas por el pueblo, como la iglesia, empiezan a creer que el error realmente es la forma correcta de escribir esa palabra.

Un aviso mal escrito hace un deservicio a la sociedad, atrasando la educación, enseñando equivocaciones.

Por eso los escritores dudosos tienen a su disposición los diccionarios, los publicistas, los correctores de estilo e incluso los artistas que corrigen tatuajes equivocados.

Cada cual es libre para expresarse de su manera, pero mejor si por lo menos sigue la ortografía usada por las masas. Gracias (no “grasias”) a este tatuador, el tatuaje “libre exprecion” fue corregido a “libre expresión”.

Volviendo a los errores más comunes en el comercio, les muestro unos ejemplos recientes donde vivo en Texas que tratan de confundirse C – S  – Z.


“baja de presio”

Me toca adivinar: ¿faltó la n? ¿baja de presión? Oh, el costo es reducido. Bueno, una venta ayuda a tener un cliente feliz, lo que quizá ayuda con su presión de sangre.

Corrección: precio


“ofresco mis servicios como chofer”

Me toca adivinar: ¿faltó un espacio? Oh, fresco. Mis servicios como chofer te llevan a donde tienes que ir. Todo bien, tranquilo.

Corrección: ofrezco


“Llama has una cita”

Me toca adivinar: El uso de Spanglish, la combinación de español (Span-) e inglés (-glish) agrega otra capa de confusión (no “confución”). Con las primeras dos palabras en inglés y las últimas en español, puede ser mal interpretado como “The llama has a date…with the camel” en vez de “Call and make an appointment” (English) o “Llama, haz una cita” (Spanish).

Corrección: haz

La forma imperativa del verbo “hacer”. Como el hazmerreír.


“si saben de algo me lo asen saber”

Corrección: hacen

Viene del verbo “hacer”. Como, “Los alumnos hacen un esfuerzo por aprender el idioma”.


“fajita marinada para azar”

Me toca adivinar: ¿Es una rifa? ¿Van a vender fajitas al zar de Rusia? ¿O es solo para el señor (no “ceñir”) Azar?

Corrección: asar

Cocinar sobre fuego, como en una barbacoa, donde es común tomar cerveza (no “servesa”).

Espero que mientras celebren Hispanic Heritage Month, tomen el tiempo para fijarse en los detalles de lo que escriban: la letra C, S o Z, la tilde, la coma. Y que tomen inspiración y absorban la redacción correcta de los grandes escritores latinoamericanos. Leer es el consejo de la campaña Dallas Reads.

En honor a la independencia de México, acabo de leer El Laberinto de la Soledad por Octavio Paz. Lo devolví a la biblioteca y presté Rayuela por Julio Cortázar, el argentino quien siempre viene recomendado por los viajeros que conozco. Así, desde Big Sur hasta Cono Sur, celebro los escritores que hacen relucir el castellano.


Ayer en un curso de barismo

Un alumno se equivocó con la leche

Mi esposo, con acento costeño,

Miró a la taza y declaró, “Es un embalatte.”

Embalar means to mess up.

A guy trying to make a machiatto got the milk wrong and ended up with a faltte, a faulty latte.

Embalar could also mean to shoot (based on my logic that bala=bullets).

You messed something up big time if they come after you with firearms.

In English, we order how many shots of espresso we want at a coffee shop. So if you end up with too few shots, it’s because the barista messed it up, “lo embalatte”.

Embalar also means to speed up, as in accelerate a vehicle.

So if you have too many shots of espresso in your coffee and wind up running around like a high-octane powered jet in a tiny office cubicle, you too may be “embalado”.

Embalar also means to wrap something up, like a package.

In this sense, the word makes me think more of “embalm” than “birthday!”

When I hear a Colombian woman complaining about some complicated work situation she got herself into, like screwing up an order, and whining “estoy tan embalada”, I know she means definition A. These are stunningly beautiful women, thanks often to a surgeon’s knife. All I see are plastic-stuffed girls, shrink-wrapped in cellophane, a pretty little package. Yes, you are soooo “embalada”.