Tag Archives: spanish culture

How to Speak Spanish: Move Your Hips

There are many challenges for an English-speaker trying to learn how to speak Spanish. Adjectives and nouns are placed in a different order. How to Speak Spanish - Move your hipsVerbs have to be conjugated to agree with their subjects in person, gender, and number. And then, there’s the pronunciation, with all those rolled r’s! Not to mention the r’s that aren’t rolled, but “flipped.” Some people just decide it’s too hard, and give up. Don’t give up. You can do this.

Let’s start with those r’s and double r’s. Both are pronounced by holding the tip of the tongue near the front of the roof of the mouth and blowing air past it, causing it to flutter – a quick flutter for the single r, a longer one for the double r. Go ahead: try it. While this can be challenging if you didn’t grow up making that sound, I’ve found that a more common problem than an inability to make the r sounds is a tendency to overdo it. Once that tongue learns to flutter, it just doesn’t want to stop. Me comí una pera becomes Me comí una perra, and just like that, instead of eating a pear, I ate a dog. In rolling your r’s, as in many other endeavors, there can be too much of a good thing.

How Latin dancing can help you learn how to speak Spanish

While it may seem far-fetched, I think there’s an analogous relationship between speaking Spanish and Latin dancing. Both involve movements that are not part of the Anglophone cultural vocabulary. In speaking, those movements take place in the mouth; in dancing, in the hips. Just as the tip of the tongue has to be trained to move independently of the base, the hips have to be trained to move independently of the upper body. When you watch good salsa dancers, it looks as if their torsos are floating through space while their legs execute all manner of amazing footwork.

Many years ago, a Latin dance instructor I knew showed me a great trick for helping people develop that independence between lower and upper body: Pretend you’re riding a bike. Standing in place, with your feet just a few inches apart, begin to “pedal,” lifting one heel and then lowering it as you lift the other. Hold your torso still (but not stiff), hinge at the waist, and feel your hips moving side to side as you shift your weight. Soon you can feel the magic of your hips moving without bringing the rest of you along. People get very excited when they learn this. Sometimes too excited. Like the runaway rolling rrrrrrr’s, the gyrating hips can get out of control, giving the fledgling salsero a rather peculiar style and creating a minor hazard for fellow dancers.

The Spanish language and Latin dancing both embody an important element of Hispanic culture: Controlled exuberance. Enjoy the thrill of your tongue fluttering, the rhythmic swaying of your hips, but don’t get carried away with it. Master this, and you’re on your way to learning how to speak Spanish, or dancing, without an accent.

Mexican tradition ¡FELIZ DIA DE LOS MUERTOS!

The release this fall, just before Halloween, of Guillermo del Toro’s new animated film THE BOOK OF LIFE, based on the Mexican tradition of Día de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is yet another sign of the ever-increasing cultural cross-fertilization between Mexico and the United States.

Mexican Tradition – Día de Los Muertos

Mexican Tradition - Ofrenda Dia De Muertos

Mexican Tradition – Ofrenda Dia De Muertos

Indeed, Día de Los Muertos and Halloween have quite a bit in common, but there are important differences as well. Halloween, as practiced today in the U.S., is mostly about dressing in costume and collecting enormous quantities of candy. Symbols of death and otherworldly images are used as decorations, but mainly in a sanitized, non-threatening way. In contrast, Day of the Dead, a holiday that spans two days in Mexico, is a time for families to remember departed loved ones, and to feel their presence in the lives of the living. In the United States, we tend to regard death as something final, foreign, something to be feared. In the Mexican tradition, Día de Los Muertos festivities reflect a recognition and acceptance of death as an integral part of the human experience, and a belief that dying does not remove a person from family and community. Death is still scary, but it’s confronted with humor, irony, and a touch of fatalism.

In preparation for Día de Los Muertos, much time and care is devoted to cleaning and decorating graves. Elaborate altars, called ofrendas (“offerings”), are constructed in honor of dead loved ones, both in homes and in cemeteries; photographs of the departed are surrounded by candles, Mexican marigolds (cempasúchil), sugar skulls (calaveritas), written messages, religious items, and food, drink, or belongings that were dear to the departed in life. All of this effort is to invite the souls of the departed to come back for a visit, to know that they are still a part of the lives of those who love them. There is sadness, of course, but there’s also celebration, with eating, drinking, music and laughter as people share humorous stories of the departed. Like a New Orleans funeral, it’s as much about celebrating life as it is about mourning.

History of Día de Los Muertos

Like many religious traditions in Latin America, Day of the Dead is a mixture of ancient native practices and Catholic beliefs. The Aztec festival commemorating the dead occupied a full month in the 16-month calendar. It was presided over by the goddess Mictecacíhuatl, the “lady of death,” wife of Mictlantecuhtli, lord of the Land of the Dead. The figure of the goddess of death has come to be associated with La Catrina, a character created by the artist José Guadalupe Posada, a very elegant skeleton dressed in the European style of an upper-class 19th-century Mexican woman.

Mexican Tradition - Dia De Los Muertos

Mexican Tradition – Dia De Los Muertos

In the modern Mexican tradition, Día de Muertos festivities coincide with the Catholic holy days of All Saints’ Day, November 1, and All Souls’ Day, November 2. The 1st of November is Día de los Inocentes (Day of the Innocents) or Día de los Angelitos (Day of the Little Angels), dedicated to the memory of children who have died, while the 2nd of Nov. is Día de Los Muertos, when departed adults are honored. It is believed that the souls of the departed come back to visit loved ones on their respective days.

It’s no wonder that Día de Los Muertos is being celebrated in a growing number of U.S. cities and towns. Brought here by immigrants, the color, beauty, and spiritual depth of this Mexican tradition is resonating with more and more Americans.  Along with the ofrendas, festivities, and pan de muerto (a Mexican sweet bread baked specially for the occasion), Dia de Los Muertos offers a chance to celebrate the lives of those who are no longer with us.