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Best Food to Remember

The most formative year of my education was the year I went to the University of California’s center at the Facultad de Filosofía y Letras in Madrid.  It was there that I learned to speak and understand and DREAM in Spanish – I picked up a Spanish boyfriend and acquired a taste for true Spanish food.  No, not Mexican food, which is wonderful in its own right – SPANISH food.  Spain.

restaurante-y-tienda-lhardy_2199071This is a picture of one of the best restaurants in Madrid, Lhardy, on the Carrera de San Jerónimo; it’s been in existence since 1839.  Rich people and wanna-bes in 19th-century novels (and real life) were always sending for Lhardy take-out:  croquettes, pâte, fois gras… whether they could pay for it or not.  Eventually, of course, if they didn’t pay, Lhardy stopped accepting their orders.

I couldn’t afford Lhardy when I was 20 years old (and I hadn’t even  heard of  it until I read Benito Pérez Galdós’  nineteenth-century masterpiece, Fortunata y Jacinta).  But I did just fine eating a tremendous amount of one of the cheapest and most typical dishes in all of Spain:  tortilla de patatas.  Potato omelet.

1352438193_b043643ab9_mOf course tortilla can contain any number of ingredients besides potatoes:  peas, shrimp, asparagus, eggplant, ham, mushrooms, red peppers…   But the classic one is just potatoes, olive oil, salt and onion.  I watched my boyfriend’s mother make tortilla and learned how to do it – but she didn’t use onions.  It wasn’t till I remembered a description of a tortilla in a nineteenth-century novel that I started putting onion in mine.

I’ve seen many tortilla recipes; generally speaking, the more complicated and fussy it is, the further it will be from an authentic tortilla.  Try the recipe in Claudia Roden’s monumental  The Food of Spain.

I came home, started graduate school, got married and started teaching in Boston.  When I turned 30, one of my colleagues, María Paz, invited me over to lunch to celebrate my birthday.  She asked me what I wanted her to cook for me:  “Tortilla and flan and whatever else you like,” I responded immediately.

María Paz was from the southern Spanish city of Córdoba; I’d tasted her cooking before and knew it would be a good lunch.  It was.  And she taught me how to make something else I loved:  flan (caramel custard).  Now there are many kinds of flan, from all over the Spanish-speaking world:  orange flan, flan made with condensed milk, cheese flan, and so on.  But again, for me there is only the simple classic one, the one I remember from Spain and that María Paz taught me to make:  eggs, milk, vanilla and sugar (some of  it caramelized).


When I was a kid, I refused to touch custard.  It was supposed to be a dessert (I’m told my grandmother made wonderful custard), but it rhymed with “mustard,” which was certainly NOT a dessert.  How could it be any good?  It was not until I lived in Spain that I learned how delicately delicious it could be.  Maybe being a young adult instead of a kid had something to do with it.

I continue to make flan to this day.  Sometimes my family asks me if I want to order it when we go to a restaurant.  I sniff disdainfully and remind them that I don’t need to eat anybody else’s flan; mine is the best.

Other people agree.  My friend Nancy, a brilliant cook, tasted my flan at a family celebration and asked me for the recipe.  Flattered, I said of course and handed her my recipe book, open to the appropriate page.  As I turned away to continue cooking, she said, “Marti… I can’t read this.”  I turned back, and suddenly realized that it was written in María Paz’s handwriting – in Spanish, naturally.  No wonder Nancy couldn’t read it!

There are other delicious dishes that live on in my heart and on my palate - gazpacho andaluz, empanada, crema catalana – each with a story behind it that makes it memorable for a lifetime.  When you travel, be sure to notice what the people of the area eat, and try it yourself.  Sometimes people can’t believe you want to eat something as ordinary as their regular fare.  Sometimes you may not like it after you’ve had it.  But always give it a try.


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Armchair Student

My daughter went to a school with one of the best biology departments in the country.  She majored in biology, graduated summa cum laude, and went to UCSF for her doctorate.

But her college also demanded a History of the World class that lasted for two years; she chose the school for that reason, too.  History, science, art – she loved it all.

Sometimes I mourn the fact that one has to concentrate on only one thing in graduate school (I’ve been to graduate school too, so I know).  What a pity not to be able to keep taking other subjects…

A few weeks ago, I got an e-mail from her:  “I thought you might be interested in this…”  And a link.  I clicked on it – and what should it be but a class in Egyptology, taught by two professors from the Autonomous University of Barcelona!images

I e-mailed her back:  “Looks fascinating – are you interested?  Too bad you’re completely tied up in science and can’t do some humanities!”  She responded, “It’s a free internet course.  I signed up already.” images-5

Who would have imagined?  I looked at it more carefully, listened to the two professors explaining what they were planning to teach (in Spanish, of course!) and wrote back to her, “OK, you talked me into it – I’m on board.”  I thought she might be sorry she told me, but no:  “Good!  Now if I get confused you can help me.”

Nor was that all – she told me she’d signed up for another class, Greek and Roman mythology, taught by a professor at U. Penn.  I looked at that one, and signed up for it too!   I apologized for seeming to stalk her, but she e-mailed me back:  “Don’t apologize, this will be fun!  Maybe. I dunno. I’m nervous about the Spanish one…”


I had never forgotten a class I sat in on at Currier House, taught by a brilliant Indo-European scholar, Gregory Nagy, on the Iliad, the Odyssey, Hesiod’s Theogony and Works and Days.  Now I would have a chance, decades later, to retake the class.  And retake it with my daughter.  All I had to do was get the prescribed editions and wait till April, which is when it’s  scheduled to start.

I was so excited that I called my sister and told her about the mythology class.  I sent her the link, in case she wanted to take it.  No, she was more interested in a class on English common law; she thought she’d sign up for that one.

Then I e-mailed my friend Julia, a native Mandarin speaker and a former software engineering manager who switched to working for an education nonprofit some years ago.  I sent her a link to 6 classes in Mandarin, including one about Chinese opera, which I knew she had a weakness for. images-5

She e-mailed me back immediately:  “I love it!  And that’s just the one short page you sent me.  I can’t wait to be retired so I can take all these classes!”

What is it that makes us want to go back and learn?  My father was a child of the Depression; his father died when he was six.  He was never able to save up the dollar required to become an Eagle Scout then, let alone find the money to go to college in the hardscrabble 1930s.  He worked until he was 63 and then retired.  He started taking painting classes then, and a year before he died, he enrolled in junior college and began taking history classes.  He got an A in images-5his first class, American History, and the professor asked him to become a tutor (American history was a requirement, and many students had difficulty with it).  “They’ll pay you,” she offered.  “I don’t need to be paid,” he said.  “I’m happy to do it.”

So for all of you armchair students out there, listen up.  Here’s the link to the outfit that’s offering my classes: . Full disclosure:  I have no connection to them, except the two courses I’m signed up for.

If it’s time for you to get back to class (in the comfort of your own living room), here’s your chance.  Anything from Constitutional Struggles in the Muslim World to A History of Art for Artists, Animators and Gamers; take a look at the class listings.  I just want to warn you about one thing:  my mythology class starts on April 22, and I’m going to need one of the library’s copies of the Robert Fagles edition of the Odyssey.  If you want to take the class, you can get out the second copy, get another copy on Link+, or you can use the online texts at  And if you don’t know how to use Link+, ask a librarian!















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Spanish in English

I want to write about a few English books in which the characters are Spanish speakers.  The stories present varied backgrounds that don’t show up so often; no little rhymes or gang-bangers.  These are just people who happen to know or speak Spanish in their stories (although the stories are written in English). 

Anne Estevis’  Chicken Foot Farm is a quiet, realistic tale about a South Texas Mexican-American farming family on the edge of World War II.  The war will change a centuries-old way of life – mules to tractors, hand shredding to machine shredding, farms to housing developments.

The family has lived in the Rio Grande Valley since before it belonged to the U.S.  They have never been wealthy in money, but always rich in folklore and culture.  Alejandro, the narrator, is a younger son.  He sees how Nature, time and chance can destroy hard work and life itself in a moment – but he also learns how to rebuild life with love,  loyalty and sweat.

His father always prefers the eldest son, Ernesto, because he sees Ernesto as his heir, the one who’ll “inherit the farm and work the land.”  As is often the case, the father does not really know his children; Alejandro works lovingly (and desperately) on the farm to win his father’s approval, while Ernesto is determined to leave farming forever.  When he does leave – enlisting in the Army when World War II breaks out – it is in a way that may never allow him to return home.

“What used to be the family compound now lies under an overpass of a six-lane expressway,” says Alejandro in the epilogue.  His brother Ernesto’s remains were shipped back from the war to be buried in the Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery.  His sister Virginia, who fell deeply in love with an Anglo who returned her love, never married him – their father forbade her to speak his name, let alone see him.  She tells Alejandro that when she travels the expressway, she feels a “tingling surge” as she drives over what used to be their farm.  He says nothing to her, “but I’ve also experienced a weird sensation at the same spot on the expressway.  I wish I could explain it, but I’m not sure I can.”  An overactive imagination?  Or, he thinks, “the spiritual bonds that exist between between individuals and the places that have enchanted them.”

You may have seen that in the first week of February the Sunnyvale Library and Columbia Neighborhood Center co-sponsored a presentation by Professor Francisco Jiménez , the Fay Boyle Professor of Modern Languages and Literatures at Santa Clara University.  There were almost 400 people at that bilingual talk.  Dr. Jiménez’s memoirs in Spanish and English were sold by Leigh’s Bookstore, and the event went on until 10:45 p.m., as people waited patiently to have him sign their books and take photographs with him.He was not born to bilingualism and a doctorate – far from it.  He came to this country when he was four years old, he knew no English (he said he failed first grade because he didn’t understand a word the teacher said), and for ten years he traveled around the Central Valley picking cotton and strawberries, thinning lettuce and topping carrots, never able to attend school until all the crops were in (the third week in November).  That was The Circuit, the circle his family repeated over and over again every year (the Spanish translation is Cajas de cartón).

When his father was unable to work in the fields anymore, he and his older brother Roberto found jobs as janitors, 30 hours a week, to support the family while they went to high school.  The man he worked for suggested that he go to college (an idea that had never occurred to Jiménez), and offered to write him a letter of recommendation to his alma mater, Santa Clara University.  The college accepted him – and then he had to leave the family he had never left before.  This was not just just a little homesickness; it was a step into an immense unknown.  And how would his family get by without the pay for the work he did?

I’ll leave you to discover how he got through college and was accepted to a doctoral program at Columbia University in his next two books, Breaking Through and Reaching Out.  Eating a strawberry or a carrot will never be quite the same.







Francisco X. Stork was born in Monterrey, Mexico, moved to Texas with his mother and stepfather when he was nine, and grew up in the El Paso housing projects.  He graduated from a small Jesuit college, went to Harvard to study Romance languages and literatures for four years, and then switched to law school at Columbia University and became a lawyer.  But he was always determined to write.

In Stork’s fourth novel, Marcelo in the Real World, Marcelo Sandoval, a seventeen-year-old who lives in a tree house, has been attending Paterson, a school in which he is allowed to remain in his “comfort zone” tending ponies and helping handicapped kids ride them.  He is at the high end of the autistic spectrum, and is happily looking forward to remaining at Paterson for the summer when his father, an attorney at a large law firm, tells him that he must learn to function in the “real world,” and spend the summer working in the mail room at the law firm.  The scene is set for either the mother or the father to be an ogre and push an autistic boy into a place where he is bound to fail – but neither parent does so.  We find out that Marcelo has been able to do many things he wanted to do, even though his father, principally, does not agree that they are worthwhile.

The parents offer their son a carrot and stick: work in the law firm during the summer, and he can choose where he wants to go to school in the fall, Paterson or a regular high school.  Marcelo reluctantly agrees to the summer in the law firm mail room – but just as his father and mother suggested, he begins to learn skills that he would never acquire at Paterson.

By the end of the summer, he has decided where he wants to go to college to be a nurse and a physical therapist, he has learned to call himself “I” instead of “Marcelo” – and he has made a true friend.

Ordinary people -who happen to be Spanish speakers – through difficulty and joy, find a place in the world.


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iBienvenidos! Welcome!

Bienvenidos a la Biblioteca de Sunnyvale con sus colecciones en español para niños.  Welcome  to the Sunnyvale Library with its collections in Spanish for children.

We have many books with CDs, children’s music CDs, as well as monolingual and bilingual Spanish books.  Many are stories for younger children (from ABC de papel to La manzana roja); we also have many non-fiction books, from songbooks to holidays to biographies.  And we purchase new books every month.

Young children love to be read to, and it’s very important for their parents, siblings and caregivers to read to them.  There is simply no comparison between reading to them, (sitting together  and pointing to the pictures, talking about the story in the book) and simply plopping them in front of a screen (TV, computer, video…).

If you know some Spanish, try some of our Spanish books like El tigre y el gato, a folktale about how the cat taught the tiger  to hunt.




Or if you want a bilingual story, pick It’s Bedtime, Cucuy / A la cama, Cucuy - the eternal story of kids who just don’t want to go to bed, they’re not tired!

And here’s a tip for you blog-readers:  there are many favorite children’s books like Freight Train = Tren de carga  in the Children’s Spanish Collection.  If the copies are all out in English, check the bilingual version.  You can just read the English, you don’t have to try the Spanish!   Of course, if you’re adventurous…

Tren de carga




Children’s books and CDs are very good for adults starting to learning Spanish, too. Come and pick up José Luis Orozco’s Diez deditos in music or book form, or  Canciones de compañeros, and get started!

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