Cuentos, Música

Perfect songs for imperfect moments

Spotify Playlist

“This song?”

“Not this song, this song is perfect.”

We were on our way home from school/work and for once we weren’t arguing over who got to choose the playlist. The previous day Xavi had asked me to play Hall & Oates’ “Maneater” after hearing the cover by The Bird and the Bee. Since he was showing interest in old school favorites, Sean and I ran with it. You mean we got to play our old school favorites? Yes.

Xavi’s phrase has stuck with me. There are so many perfect songs and songs that are perfect because they take me back to a very specific moment. I like to think of them as the songs that have altered my brain chemistry because I can’t hear them without instantly being transported 20 (or 30!) plus years to that moment.

El Noa Noa by Juan Gabriel

It’s really hard to pick one life-altering JuanGa song because his music is omnipresent. He died on the day before my second son was born and I listened to a playlist through most of my labor, at least the early part before I realized the epidural wasn’t as effective in blocking pain as it was during my first time giving birth. (Aside: that one knocked me out and I took a glorious nap in active labor.)

I don’t associate El Noa Noa with that hospital room. Instead, I’m taken to the Kern River (always known as just El Río) in the Mojave Desert. Growing up, it seemed that we’d go to the river every long weekend and were always accompanied by 4 or 5 other families, both our relatives and compadres. There was no shortage of kids. We spent all day in the river because it was too hot outside. At night I’d still feel myself being pulled by the current as I laid awake trying to get the ghost stories out of my mind. Really, whoever decided to tell the story of La Llorona as we camped beside a river was just cruel.

A calm river surrounded by a rocky bank of white rocks. in the background are leafy trees, shrubs, a mostly clear blue sky and grey mountain. A few people wade in the water.

When I hear El Noa Noa, I can still see my cousin Eric standing on a boulder dancing and singing along with El Divo de Juárez. Eric was fully dressed instead of in his swim trunks like the rest of us because he had the bad luck of stepping on some glass on our first day. We hadn’t even set-up camp when my tío and tía had to leave and take him to the ER. The cut was bad enough that he had to get stitches and couldn’t swim with the rest of us, but dancing and singing on a rock was fine.

It’s hard to know if I remember this moment so well because of how we laughed or because my tío Chuy captured it on home video. Who knows, but it’s fitting that I think about my cousin singing in a desert along to a song that’s an ode to an El Paso bar.

Teenage Cindy posing with her brother Danny. Both are dressed up and smiling at the camera.

Soul to Squeeze by the Red Hot Chili Peppers

Summer 1996 was the first summer Danny had his driver’s license. We also signed up to host a Spanish exchange student, Esteban, for a month. Esteban had come with a group of students to learn English and his peers were also hosted by families we knew from church. During the day, they had class, but afterward they had excursions around LA like the beach or Disneyland. On this afternoon, Danny drove Esteban, his friend Sergio, and me to Guitar Center in West Covina. I don’t remember the reason for the trip. We had the radio tuned to KROQ, as always. Soul to Squeeze came on and I found myself singing together with Sergio to the chorus:

Where I go, I just don't know
I got to, got to, gotta take it slow
When I find my peace of mind
I'm gonna give you some of my good time

It was just a moment but it was the first time I remember that tingle of a crush acknowledging me in a flirtatious way. Nothing came from it and it was all probably in my head. Despite that, Soul to Squeeze always takes me back to my mom’s minivan with our Spanish exchange students.

1979 by the Smashing Pumpkins

This will forever be associated with my alarm clock radio. I can’t remember the exact morning in tenth grade this happened, but I do know Billy Corgan woke me up and I was probably late.

La Bamba by Los Lobos

La Bamba is the first soundtrack I became obsessed with. My siblings and I would play it over and over. Los Lobos’ version of La Bamba ends with the traditional son jarocho style. When the jarana starts in the outro I think of standing in our living room near the clunky stereo and dancing in a circle with a silly zapateado with Adrian. Writing this now it’s funny that I recall Adrian dancing like he was circling the sombrero in El Jarabe Tapatío because he was the only one of us kids who never danced ballet folklórico.

So Fresh and So Clean by OutKast

This is the song that inspired me to rack my brain for other songs I associate with indelible moments. When I hear the opening line, “Ain’t nobody dope as me, I’m just so fresh, so clean” I’m instantly back at a house party in September 2001. I had just turned 21 and went to a party at my friends’ house. When I arrived I didn’t know anyone besides the host, Chris and Lamont (shoutout to #thatsite), and remember walking through to the back yard. That’s when I saw D walk through the sliding doors singing.

Note: I used the El Noa Noa section for my takeover of this week’s Leave it to Leonor newsletter.

Cuentos, Familia

Cry Now, Smile Later

When I was a junior in college I took a creative writing course called bilingual autobiography. We wrote daily in the class and I still have my journal. Some of the prompts were things like “describe the last time you heard a mariachi.” Our final story for the course was something that stemmed from the prompt, “write about something that you can laugh about now, but was tragic or very upsetting at the time.”

I wrote about getting caught cheating on a test in eighth grade. My co-conspirator was my crush. It had everything a YM Say Anything tale of woe and embarrassment was made of: humiliation in front of peers, a kinda scary authority figure, bad judgment, even worse luck, and a crush there to see the whole thing. In my case, my crush was also getting in trouble. I worked on my story all quarter and was very proud of the final draft. I still have it in a box put away somewhere.

The tragicomic story has been on my mind a lot lately. I grew up hearing my parents tell stories about their childhoods in ways that made us kids roar with laughter. When my dad’s family migrated from Guanajuato to the US they settled initially in Texas. There, my grandpa Bartolo was a ranch hand on a farm. My dad’s tales of the time involved busting up bales of hay to find snakes and going to a school where all the white kids talked about fun summer activities that were foreign to him. They didn’t stay in Texas too long. When they left my grandma’s brother came to help them move. My dad was forced to part with his beloved dog, Blue Boy. The dog didn’t fit in his uncle’s station wagon. The car was already full of the family of 8 people. Perhaps it was 9. I don’t remember if my dad’s youngest two sisters were born yet.

I had my own recent situation that I could only laugh at because it’s too ridiculous to cry over. After finally rebooking some flights from last summer, I had to postpone a family trip to Disney World because of COVID. Coincidentally, the first cancellation for an LA trip in August 2021 was also due to COVID. After 2.5 years it finally got me in mid-September. I wasn’t too bummed although I had to spend my anniversary weekend isolated and feeling crummy. We were able to postpone a few weeks and save some money by altering our hotel plans.

As our trip approached, I started looking closely at the news about Hurricane Ian. Ultimately, we opted to cancel the trip. The kids understood, knowing that it was all out of our control and ultimately cancelling a trip is not a big deal when others are suffering the impact of the storm.

They’re clamoring for when we’ll reschedule this family vacation. I don’t know. Maybe the fourth time will finally be the charm we need.

For now, I’ll just make TikToks, laugh, and be thankful that although we didn’t take the trip(s) we’re safe and have recovered from mild bouts with COVID (yay for all being fully vaccinated and boosted!). I realized long ago that I need to be able to laugh in these situations to cope. It’s what my parents taught me.

Cuentos, Familia

The Beginner Zone

I tried skiing. It was fun and I think I want to do it again.

I never thought I’d write those sentences. Growing up, I didn’t know anyone who skied. My experience with snow was limited to sledding during weekend trips to Big Bear or Lake Arrowhead. My siblings got into snowboarding, but I never went because they scared me with their tales of how much it hurt when they fell. Plus, the cost turned me off. I didn’t have much disposable income as a grad student.

Seeing the kids do their never-ever lessons, I was intrigued. Plus, Archie kept asking me to ski with him.

So I signed up for the 90-minute learn to ski program last week. For $59 I got the lesson and equipment rental. While the kids had their lesson, I learned the basics.

My instructor started off by asking me what sports I play in the summer. It’s been a long long time, but I’ve played baseball and was a runner. I also mentioned that I used to roller skate and had been ice skating a couple of times. Both were good as they helped me get the hang of a basic stance and also being familiar with the weird feeling of sliding or gliding. As he assured me, having two long sticks and a bulky boot feels very weird and counterintuitive, but you get used to it.

Once I got the hang of gliding down a very small half pipe in the beginner area, making the pizza wedge, moving around on the skis, and starting to turn we made our way to the first slope, the Magic Carpet. There I’d have a longer slope to practice the turns.

Soon the kids joined me after finishing their lessons. Xavi shared his tips and Archie was excited to hold my hand at the top of the first slope. At one point I kinda crashed into Xavi who had fallen ahead of me. He was fine and getting knocked out of a ski didn’t hurt. My instructor used that as a reminder to point out how to turn in case of an obstacle. Most of all, I didn’t panic and didn’t fall. That came later.

I joined Xavi on the bigger slope in the beginner zone, the Boardwalk. I fell on the lift and had to wait for the lift operator to help me get out of my skis. At the top it looked way more steep and I said a little prayer. It didn’t help that by that time lots of snowboarders were around and they kept falling. I took the route with some gentle curves and made it down okay, but no one saw me. The next time I went down the straight part of the slope after Archie and made it okay.

We left after that since everyone was hungry and kind of tired. I was sore for a few days, but it was worth the rush of trying something new and challenging. It reminded me of the adrenaline rush from zip-lining, climbing the high elements of a ropes course, finishing a run or race and seeing great views, or rafting in the Kern River. They make me feel thankful for my body and what I can do, even as I grow older and my body changes.

The adrenaline was cool and all, but I was way more happy to join an activity with the kids. They were proud to see me try after a few weeks of being their cheerleader. That was the best part.


Week two blurbs

A few days ago I attended a research talk for work. I was looking forward to meeting the speaker since I know he mentors a lot of our advanced students and he was born and education in Mexico. After our director introduced our guest, El Profe added a note on his bio.

“I was educated in Mexico, Canada, and now the United States. Since I came here in 1992, I like to say I’m of the pioneers of NAFTA.”

I think it was supposed to be a joke, but the audience of college freshmen and sophomores didn’t even chuckle. I was amused. Then I wondered, do they even know what NAFTA is? They weren’t alive when it was approved and some were just infants when it went in to effect on January 1, 1994.

Tierra y libertad!

They certainly don’t remember watching footage of the Zapatista uprising. Ski masks are probably just ski masks to them.

One of my favorite photos ever

I don’t know if I’ve ever felt more removed and from a different generation than I feel from this class. The freshmen are the same age as my cousin Valerie. I remember cradling her as a newborn during my quinceañera. It’s also been 20 years since my freshman year of high school. It still feels weird to be able to begin a sentence that way and discuss an event I remember vividly.


My work credit card was flagged for fraudulent activity. I was a bit baffled because the card is almost always locked away in my office. I’ve only used it a couple times too. When I called the bank’s fraud office, I found out it had been used to purchase $300 worth of merchandise at Motherhood Maternity. I grumbled about buying maternity clothes, but at least I did it legitimately. I feel bad for hoping that the thief gets bad heartburn or swollen feet.


My neighbor

I get a lot of emails that go something like this: I’m really interested in the X Program. Can you send me info on how to apply?

I have a general form email I send with links to our website. There they can find step-by-step directions on applying. However, I’d really like to reply with a link to Let Me Google That For You. I don’t because snark at work is probably not good and I’m sure I asked similar questions as a college student too. At least I wasn’t applying to a research program.


Memories from a box: Away from home alone

Autobiography box

Years ago my good friend Isabel gave me The Autobiography Box: A Step-by-Step Kit for Examining the Life Worth Living by Brian Bouldrey. I love the gift, but beginning to write an autobiography or memoir, even as a writing exercise, felt odd when I was barely in my mid 20s. (If only Girls was around back then…) Still, I liked the prompts and opened the box once in a while when I organized my desk. Each time, I’d think I should tackle some of the topics. Anyway, I’d like to write more and perhaps this box can help.

First up, chosen sort of at random:
Write about the first time you went away from home alone. Was it a vacation? Was it for work? Were you looking for something? Were you running away? Do you see that excursion as a “hero’s journey,” or did you go kicking and screaming? How did it change you?


I’m not sure I’ve truly ever been away from home alone. Totally alone. Sure, I’ve traveled on my own, but even then there was always something familiar there. I stayed with friends or visited family.

Still, I do know the first time I went somewhere without my parents or siblings: Girl Scout camp.

Setting up camp

El Potrero Girl Scout campground is only a couple hours away by bus, but it felt far. Before going to camp, I’d never even heard of Lake Elsinore.

I don’t remember much about the bus trip aside from the scorched terrain along the mountainside. The trees were bare and dirt was black. I don’t remember if there were brush fires or the fire department had preemptively burned off the dry brush.

I wasn’t alone on this trip. There were a couple other girls from my troop attending the space-themed camp that summer. I also remember being excited to find a couple of notes from my mom packed with my things.

I really liked being away at camp. I remember feeling like a kid from the movies. We stayed in tents, did arts and crafts and ate trail mix. It was the first time I heard the term GORP (good old raisins and peanuts). We took hikes and slept under the stars at night. We had campfires, sang “Kumbaya” and freaked out over creepy things — a toilet flushing on it’s own.

There were things I didn’t like. Some of the girls were a bit catty and mean. I also got stung three times by wasps on the nose, arm and thumb. Everyone got stung by a wasp at least one, but I think I was the only one unlucky enough to get stung on the nose and develop a huge red welt.

Gee mom I want to go
But they won’t let me go
Gee mom I want to go home
From Girl Scout camp

I didn’t stay in Girl Scouts much longer after going away to camp. I don’t know if it happened that summer or the next summer, but there was a bus accident involving Girl Scouts going to camp.