Mole Poblano

A couple years ago I mentioned a story for another time. That time is here, so here is another story from the past, this one in Mexico.

I was working for a low-income housing co-op in Santa Clara, CA. On the side I was the Northern California Director of APSNICA (Architects and Planners in Support of Nicaragua). I quit the co-op job so I could move to Nicaragua and work full time, where we were building housing on cooperatively-owned cattle ranches.

I knew my Spanish was too rusty to live and work there, so I stopped off in Mexico for a refresher course at Cuauhnahuac, where I had studied Spanish several years before. I had three weeks to get up to speed. I brought my APSNICA slideshow along. As a self-imposed final exam I would present my 45 minute program in Spanish to the school. I had done it dozens of times in English, but this would let me know if I was ready to live in another country and work in Spanish. (I passed. Since I made up the exam, I got to grade it.)

The school placed students with families so we would be exposed to the language for more than the 6 hours/day we would spend at school. I was placed with a family with several children. The whole family slept on the living room floor to free up the bedrooms for students. One of the kids had had polio when he was younger. At 14 he wore a metal and leather long leg brace, which he took off to play basketball. A hoop (or maybe it was a literal basket, I don’t recall) was nailed to a pole in the street outside their house. Bad leg and all, he beat me more than once. (He called the game “basket”, as in – ¿Quieres jugar basket? -[“Do you want to play basketball?”]- but when he scored, he yelled – ¡Canasta! -[“basket!”])

I had a roommate, who was soon to start medical school -coincidentally in my home town. He said he wanted to be a family practice doctor and wanted to work with low-income clients who were not native English speakers. He knew that med school would present temptations to go into lucrative specialties and he wanted an experience to anchor him so he could resist those temptations. He would spend a few months volunteering in a clinic in a tiny mountain town in Puebla (home of Mole Poblano). A stint at Cuauhnahuac was first on the agenda, so he could talk to his patients.

We became fast friends. I was initially impressed by the maturity of his plan. I quickly remembered what I was doing at that age and how offensive it was when people were impressed by my maturity. I kept my mouth shut.

I went off to Nicaragua and Ken went off to Zacapoaxtla. We agreed to meet and travel together when I finished work. In those days, the only communication available was snail mail. International mail traveled at a snail’s pace. I wrote to Ken with a plan and date that I could arrive. I didn’t hear back.

I took a series of buses to get to Zacapoaxtla. I was the only gringo around. I found a clinic but no one was around. I found a hotel. When I went into the restaurant across the street for dinner, I was asked if I had come to town to see Ken, there being no other reason they could imagine a gringo being there. I said yes and that I had gone to the clinic but couldn’t find him. She told me he didn’t work in this town, but in the next village up the road, Tatoxcac.

After breakfast the next day I started up a narrow road winding through the mountain. I kept passing others walking up the same road, only to have to pass them again later. I learned that there was a path that left the road at every switchback and cut straight through the woods. The walk back down the mountain was much faster.

I made it to the little clinic. It was open but empty. I wandered through and then back outside and saw someone waving to me. The doctor walked up and asked if I were Steve. She said Ken was out of town and would be back the next day. She asked where I was staying and we made a plan for Ken to meet me for breakfast at the restaurant across from my hotel (the one that already knew who I was).

We had breakfast and hatched a plan to conduct a Mole Poblano tour. We traveled by bus from town to town throughout the state of Puebla, eventually getting to Puebla (the capital) itself. We ate Mole in every town. We ate in restaurants big and small, more and less fancy. We concluded that the best Mole Poblano was in a little village where there was a large open courtyard with big picnic tables. Surrounding the courtyard were individual open-air kitchens under a corrugated tin roof held up by poles. Whichever one you sat nearest fed you. The one we chose had two items on the menu – pechuga (breast) and pierna (leg). Either was served in a clay bowl covered in sauce and accompanied by a stack of tortillas. If you ran out of sauce before you ran out of tortillas, they refilled your bowl (no more chicken, just the sauce – but that was the best part). If I dug out my journal I could probably name the town. I could maybe find that market if I found the town. That’s not the point. The point was that we had a really good time eating a lot of really good food and had a great tour of the state in the process. And if we did it again, we might find the best mole somewhere else.

Ken went on to med school, became a family practice doctor, married another family practice doctor, went to work for a community health center (interestingly, the one which took over the clinic where I had volunteered in the 70s), eventually became Medical Director, and is now the CEO. I think his plan worked.


I watched the “One World: Together at Home” concert, with all of the artists recorded at home. I felt like a fraud. Everyone was lauding the heroic frontline healthcare workers risking their very lives. Yes, I’m a frontline healthcare worker. Maybe I’m in the second line. I dress funny nowadays, but mostly I just do my job. I don’t really do anything heroic. Maybe it’s like the old joke about the definition of a Yankee (the closer you get the more specific and nuanced the definition). Or the notion of a “war zone”. In the 1980s, many people in the US considered all of Central America to be a war zone. When you got to Central America, the war zone was in Nicaragua. When you got to Nicaragua, it was the Matalagalpa region. When you got to Matagalpa, it was out near Muy Muy and Matiguás. Where I worked, between Muy Muy and Matiguás, it was over the next ridge. I never saw the war zone.

I’m no hero. But it would be nice if the wall-mounted hand sanitizer dispensers actually had hand sanitizer in them. It would be nice if I hadn’t worn the same single-use mask for three weeks (and counting). It would be nice if I were allowed to wear an N-95 respirator if I saw a COVID-19+ patient – but those are reserved for the ICU and IMC patients. Since I work in an IMC (intermediate care center), I should be careful what I ask for.


This is not a word to be tossed around lightly. But Our Only President first asserted absolute power, then said that the authority rested in individual state governors, then tweeted LIBERATE MICHIGAN, where he doesn’t like the governor and where a shelter in place order is active. I don’t know about you, but I remember a lot of National Liberation Fronts. The point of that word was to overthrow the existing government. So when Trump tweets that we should “liberate” a state (Michigan isn’t the only one, and your state may be next) at a time when a demonstration has been called in that state (and who is organizing and funding those demonstrations?) we all know what he means. Sure, he can hide behind the words and claim he just wants to ensure our constitutional freedoms, but we all know what that word means.

Think about that. We have a president advocating for the overthrow of government – not the federal government, but individual states. He may not be technically committing treason, since he’s not advocating nor attempting to implement the overthrow of the US government; but he is advocating for the overthrow of governments within this country and there is news that funding is coming from people within his government, if not from him personally. We have a president who claimed absolute authority. Then he realized that absolute authority is accompanied by absolute responsibility. Since he has already said, “I don’t take responsibility at all”, he may have figured out that he didn’t really want that authority, as he has spent his career blaming others for his failings. As soon as he relinquished that authority, he began attacking those who took it on.