The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr.

Several times during my career I have read The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. (the version updated by E. B. White).

The thing is—and I can’t stress this enough—the book just never gets old!

elements of style pic.jpeg

If you are looking for an easy way to improve your writing, even as a researcher or academic, it is a book that I can highly recommend. For one, it is short. The paragraphs are broken down into tiny numbered blocks that communicate a tremendous wealth of writing knowledge in an incredibly small amount of space. Originally, Strunk intended for this book to be a writing guide to his students. I have to wonder if he ever imagined that it would gain the popularity it did and eventually become the Bible of the English-language style guides.

By now I have mostly memorized the rules within its covers—the elementary rules of usage, composition, form, and style—but I always seem to pick up a new tidbit every time I flip through the pages. I then remind myself to follow better rules and be a better writer. I’ve never been much of one to follow the rules, but I do think it is useful to have guidelines. Like a lot of things in life, I see writing as part art and part science. Guidelines may be more appropriate for scientific and academic writing, yet there are instances in which occasionally and artfully breaking those guidelines can sometimes be fruitful. Certainly, experimentation in the literary form has allowed for many great works of literature.

But, back to the book at hand—The Elements of Style is written true to Strunk’s form: short, concise, and to the point. The advice, above all, is practical and easy to apply to everyday writing. To me, the core of Strunk’s advice focuses on writing intentionally. He favors brevity and the use of powerful statements, but beyond simple conciseness, he advocates that every word truly occupy its place and be of value.

He clarifies many practical dilemmas, such as the use of “irregardless” (hint: don’t use it). He also clues us in to all the filler words that he wishes would be banished, such as “due to the fact that” (I’m guilty of this one). His disdain for the misuse of English words frequently borders on comical, similar to a modern (yet much more polished and eloquent) Facebook rant against the use of “each and every one” and “kind of” and all the other imprecise jargon that one could think of.

But this book is of great value since a lot of what Strunk recommends has been adopted as best practice in contemporary English usage and writing. Beyond a style guide, I am enamored with this little book since it seems to reflect greater changes in American culture during the 20th century, such as the worship of business-like acumen. Writing, just like many things in life, can now be precise and mastered by following the appropriate steps and rules. Writing is no longer a practice or a process, but a means of getting from point A to point B and communicating intentionally. As boring as this sounds, I don’t wish to disparage Strunk, as he is one of the main sources of my writing wisdom.

Inspired by Strunk, I am hoping in the coming weeks to write some more blogs on some of the advice that Strunk provides in his style guide.


As Thanksgiving approaches, I’ve been thinking a lot about gratitude.

Certainly, at the heart of Thanksgiving is reminding ourselves for what we are thankful—and there are many reasons why we should be thankful. Psychology studies have shown that gratitude is, indeed, associated with happiness.

This year I have been feeling more grateful than years past.

From a business perspective, I feel grateful to have met and worked with some wonderful clients. Really, my life and my work would not be so interesting if I didn’t have the pleasure to read and edit and translate so many excellent scientific studies. Every day I am surprised and even encouraged by the ingenuity and intelligence of my clients. It makes me happy to know that the world is filled with such people, working hard every day to contribute science and to make the world a better place.

I am also thankful that freelancing appears to be working out and working well, much better than in the past. Certainly, this has been part of my dedication to improve as a business and also to continually improve my skills in writing, translating, and editing. I feel grateful to have a job that I finding challenging but also enjoyable (most of the time).

At a personal level, I am excited as well—I feel thankful to have a romantic, intelligent fiancé who always encourages me and who is quite easy to admire. He has the biggest heart in the world, and I am happy that he continues to save some room there for me.

Although gratitude may in part be appreciation for what we have, perhaps another aspect is realizing that most things in life, hardships included, are temporary and tend toward resolution, as long as we allow ourselves to follow that path. The universe would tell us otherwise, that everything tends toward entropy and increasing disorder. Yet perhaps we humans are sufficiently delusional that we allow ourselves to create new stories and write new scripts amidst all that chaos.

Slippers and the Era of Trump

The other day I went to the store. For the last week or so I had been dreaming of buying myself some nice, warm, fluffy slippers now that autumn has come around in full force.

A Latina-looking woman was ahead of me in the check-out line. As she got to the front, the clerk started asking her questions—her phone number, etc.—the typical kinds of questions that you are asked in order to take advantage of your reward points and whatnot. However, the woman answered the clerk in a strong accent. The more she spoke, the more she seemed to be visibly nervous. She turned around and looked at me and the rest of the line, as if she was expecting a reaction. Again, the clerk asked her a question or two that she didn’t understand, and the woman seemed to get even more flustered. She turned around again, and I just instinctively smiled at her. We exchanged a moment, ever so slight, as if we both understood.

At the end of the day everyone purchased their shoes and pants and slippers. Everything seemed to be as normal, except it wasn’t. This is the new era of Trump.

Increasing your English Vocabulary Using Vocabulary/Word Lists

When you are learning a language, certainly there are highs and lows. I remember back to my Spanish classes in college, when a young, very frustrated lady asked the professor how she could improve her language abilities. She felt like she was doing everything right. She was studying and got good grades on her exams, yet she felt the ability to really master Spanish and speak it at a functional level was still elusive to her.

I still remember my professor’s response: increase your vocabulary.

At first I thought his response was sort of simplistic, but I now understand and somewhat agree. Once you have learned the basics of a language and the rules that outline its usage, learning more vocabulary words becomes the only way to elevate your communication and express yourself in a more nuanced way.

Of course, along with this, I think lots of practice and spending time in a region where the language is spoken are also two key factors that aid in improving your language abilities.

In fact, one day at a dollar store (of all places, I promise I don’t usually shop at dollar stores, just occasionally when I am bored… although they have interesting things that you would never find anywhere else, well maybe between interesting/wasteful/bizarre… I promise I have good taste), I found a little book titled “4000 Most Common Words in Spanish.” I enjoy making a good (and cheap) purchase. So indeed, I purchased this book and went down the list of common words, studying them in my spare time. Please also note this was indeed an unusual occurrence – I don’t recommend book shopping at the dollar store. Books at the dollar store are usually sent there because they don’t sell anywhere else. And no, you probably don’t need more cheap, plastic utensils in your kitchen that break within two weeks. (And for those unaware of the concept of a dollar store, it is where everything costs $1)

Okay, enough about the dollar store.

I was happy to find that a similar (and much better) list exists for ESL (English as a second language) speakers: The New General Service List.

Yes, from the title you would never imagine that the general service is in fact a list of the most common English words, as determined by Dr. Charles Browne, Dr. Brent Culligan, and Joseph Phillips ( If you master the words on this list, you will understand up to 92% of English words in written texts (of the texts selected by these fine fellows). There is some more history about this list, at the wikipedia page.

I also was happy to see an Academic Word List! Yes, now this is really useful! These words are common to academic writing and also available in downloadable/excel format, also from their webpage (

I really enjoyed one image on their webpage, at following:


Wow! What amazes me the most about this is to think that while 600,000 words exist in the English language, even us native English speakers only have a command of approximately 30,000 words.

I think I might go read a dictionary, right now.

Shortest Book Review: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou, African-American writer and activist, passed away a little over two years ago. As they were commemorating her passing on the news, I wondered to myself why I had never read one of her books. After all, reading a Maya Angelou book has always been on my to-do list!

So, I found I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings at my local library. This book is actually an autobiography, but Maya Angelou recounts her childhood as if it were fiction. Her story reads more like a chronological narrative than a traditional autobiography.

This, in and of itself, is certainly an accomplishment and an expansion of the autobiographical genre.

However, I was touched by her experiences of discrimination and prejudice, and above all her matter-of-fact and very practical attitude in the face of such experiences. She doesn’t seek sympathy from the reader but instead gains the reader’s respect. Her childhood stories are often heartbreaking, yet they also tell a tale of a young woman coming into her own despite social, racial, and gender prejudices, which have collided with her own personal and familial tragedies.

Yet this story is far from being just a tragedy. There is a slight tinge of hope throughout her childhood recounting. In spite of memories of pain and suffering, her love for her brother, her friends, and for literature shine though as her guiding saviors. Her acceptance of her destiny (and subsequent desire to change it) and her sense of personal responsibility, perhaps instilled by her grandmother, are also notable.

Maya also gains you over slowly. Her attack is subtle, as what seems to be a simple recounting in her few first chapters turns into a profound experience by the end of the novel.

As I Caucasian female, perhaps I have often erred in believing that racism or prejudice no longer exist. Perhaps this is a reflection of my own tolerance and upbringing in racially diverse southern California. I remember growing up with friends from a wide range of racial backgrounds and believing it to be absolutely normal. I truly thought no differently of my white, black, and Mexican classmates.

In this sense, it was very touching to me to see that a woman like Maya Angelou had experienced such prejudices or difficulties in the not-so-distant past. I’m not talking about the 19th century, civil war era. Just in the past 50 to 60 years, or even more recent decades.

What I do know is that suffering tends to beget more suffering. Maya bore the brunt of a history and family that was not her own, yet transformed her story into that of her own making.

A summary of my research

Here is a synthesis of my research at The Ecology Institute in Xalapa, Veracruz, Mexico, under the guidance of Dr. Sergio Guevara Sada.


A Landscape Focus for Urban Environmental History:  Synthesizing Landscape Perceptions, Histories, and Ecological Conceptions of the Landscape


The landscape is a scenario well-suited to studies of environmental history.  Contemporary environmental perceptions by the human inhabitants of the landscape may be positioned as primary sources of landscape history and transformation, and such perceptions may be placed in context and explained through more traditional and complementary secondary sources of land use and change over time.  Landscape is potentially one of the most relevant scales at which environmental perception may be addressed, as humans relate and identify with the landscape as a whole rather than with specific natural or urban elements and resources, which have conventionally defined the thematic of environmental perception studies.  Landscape knows no borders, whether political or environmental, and does not respect clearly defined distinctions, such as natural, urban, or agricultural.  Such an approach explicitly recognizes that what is natural is often grounded on the human perception of natural and thus varies according to person, culture, or region.  Therefore, we may re-think distinctions between natural and unnatural, or urban and rural, as more of a continuum rather than as forming distinct categories.

In addition, ecological understandings and definitions of landscape are also suitable to discerning the history of the landscape.  Just as the physical, ecological, and biological patterning of the landscape is non-uniform, both spatially and temporally, human understanding and perception of the landscape is also similarly heterogeneous.  Perception of the landscape and its history by its inhabitants is, in a sense, both socially and individually conditioned and depends on factors such as education, socioeconomic status, place of birth, information available about the landscape through mass communications, as well as individual experiences with the landscape.  This paper seeks to offer a theoretical framework for studies which aim to coalesce contemporary environmental perceptions of the landscape with historical sources and views on landscape history and change, offering a complete and holistic approach that may help us understand why landscapes exist as they do and take on certain spatial arrays.  Thus, this is a framework for understanding how landscapes are created.  A case study of the urban environmental history of Xalapa, Veracruz, Mexico is offered using the scale of landscape as the defining paradigm.

Xalapa, the capital of the Mexican state of Veracruz, in many ways represents an ideal case study of this conceptual bridging of secondary historical sources and contemporary perceptions of the landscape.  The city’s aspect in and of itself can easily confuse distinctions between natural and urban.  Nestled in a mountainous terrain of cloud forest, a vegetation type where both flora and fauna of the nearctic and the neotropical unite, the city may be considered part of the larger landscape mosaic.  Although the city harbors over half a million people, for many inhabitants, the memory remains of Xalapa as a provincial city, full of vegetation and intricately linked to the agricultural and cattle ranching fields located immediately outside and often within city limits.  Where abundant parks and beautiful, panoramic views of the Cofre de Perote, a mountain range, and Pico de Orizaba, the tallest volcanic peak in Mexico, are offered on various street corners on clear days, many inhabitants find it difficult to distinguish between “natural” and “urban” landscapes, often considering them one and the same.  While sunny days offer panoramic views, the typical weather affords nature of another sort, as seasonal rain and fog are also defining characteristics of the surrounding cloud forest, where the light, accompanying drizzle is colloquially known as “chipi-chipi.”

Due to its amenable natural environment, as well as economic necessities and demands, many agricultural activities occur in the immediate outskirts of the city, where the city’s urban growth and development now intertwines with the rural, including coffee plantations, sugarcane cropping, and cattle ranching.  The growth of the colonial city has been historically linked to the agricultural fields and primary production activities that have occurred in the outskirts of the city, while the city itself has also historically figured as an important center of consumption.  Since the 1980s Xalapa has been urbanizing at a rapid rate, primarily due to internal migration within the state of Veracruz as people from smaller localities move to the capital city in search of work and new opportunities that have been scarce in what many consider an institutionalized political disregard of rural areas in Mexico, where many of its inhabitants live impoverished or based on subsistence agriculture, often lacking in access to urban services offered by the city environ.  After the passing of North American Federal Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994 and the subsequent drop in prices of many agricultural products, farming has become less viable economically for many, especially small-scale famers.  Thus the urban population of Xalapa is diverse, with migrants from other areas of Veracruz, inhabitants with direct experiences in rural and agricultural landscapes, in addition to the traditional, long-lineaged urbanites, born and raised in the city, who are testaments to the rapid change of the urban landscape and are able to recite the urban histories of their parents and grandparents.

Over 240 residents of Xalapa were interviewed with the goal of understanding how inhabitants referenced the landscape and perceived changes in the landscape over time.  Such spoken histories were better understood after first compiling a scenario of the region, a selectively assembled history of events that took into account social and political forces that have been key in shaping the spatial patterning of the landscape since colonial times.  The idea is to arrive at a certain essence of the city of Xalapa, one that explains urban form and its connection to its rural and agricultural hinterlands.

It is common for habitants to elicit stories that reference the Xalapa of before and after, where the Xalapa of after is characterized by chaotic urban growth that has transformed the green city of before.  The common narrative points to an overall degradation of the urban landscape in recent years, however, this narrative varies according to the social and economic profiles of those interviewed.  Newcomers born outside the city of Xalapa, females, and those under the age of 35 have a marked preference for landscapes that are perceived as natural.  Meanwhile, those born within the city of Xalapa, men, and over the age of 35 hold a preference for agricultural landscapes.  When asked about typical landscapes, all respondents named an array of both natural, urban, and agricultural elements typical to the region, once again blurring the lines and distinctions between natural and urban.  In addressing both the relevance of the landscape as a unit of study and subsequently the case study of the city of Xalapa, we hope to shed light on the current state of the landscape and why native residents seemingly have a more defined preference for modified, agricultural landscapes versus more naturally perceived landscapes.


The proposed unit of study is the landscape, and we are distinctly concerned with the history of the landscape of the city of Xalapa.  This unit of study is not only practical, but also the most relevant for integrating popular accounts of the environment and environmental changes over time with historical secondary sources.  While environmental processes occur at various scales, what captures human attention is formed by the perceptible domain, that is, the scale of landscape at which humans appraise their immediate environments.  While for the term landscape there exists a multitude of definitions, referring to a range of characteristics of a certain area, such as the continental mass, bodies of water, vegetation, human perturbations, or other more abstract elements like lighting or weather conditions, for the purpose of this study it is suggested that a human landscape implies a specific spatial relationship, entailing the existence of an observer and observed object or landscape.

In this case the observers are the inhabitants of Xalapa that experience and perceive their landscape, revolving around urban, semi-urban, and agricultural scenes or landscapes that are encountered during their daily routines of travel, work, business, and leisure.  Remnants of natural vegetation and the surrounding mountains are everyday aspects of life in Xalapa due to the rough terrain over which the city is situated, offering numerous views of the surrounding landscape, including monuments, building, urban parks, and other street scenes.

Thus the concept of landscape in this history is characterized by human landscapes, or the perceptible domain, and also reinforced by Lefebvre’s conception of spaces within the city.  According to Lefebvre (1991), perceived space may refer to a relatively objective idea of physical space within the city and the arrangement of urban elements, while conceived space refers to the mental construction of that space and the way in which it is interpreted and represented by its inhabitants.  Meanwhile, lived space represents the combination of both perceived and conceived spaces.   In this sense, this history is one of lived spaces that exist physically and objectively, yet take on unique meanings and symbolisms as constructed and assigned by the people that live in them.


In addressing the urban environmental history of the landscape of Xalapa we are confronted with a broad theme since the landscape is not integrated solely by its physical or social components but rather is the result of a long history of exchange between the physical landscape and its inhabitants, where both have equally influenced each other.  Thus studying the history of the landscape with a humanistic focus signifies understanding this process of exchange between the inhabitants and the landscape and the meanings that they have come to assign to the landscape (Rossler, 2009).  According to Durkheim & Mauss (1963) the classification of the natural world is a reflection of the social world, in which scientists themselves are partial and limited by their own perceptive capacities and the existing language and discourses used to describe certain phenomena, where discourse is understood as a shared way of thinking about or describing a certain phenomenon (Adger et al., 2001).

While a landscape may be constructed socially, it would be biased to ignore the reality of the assorted physical, biological, and ecological components of the ecosystems that it is composed of.  Thus the landscape is the place where nature and culture converge, where human history is superimposed on natural history.  It is possible to read the landscape as if it were a text that narrates the history of a culture or region through the spatial array of elements and their relationship to one another.  Wherein the modern city lies perhaps the most complex manifestation of the relationship between human culture and nature and the human capacity to extract and transform natural resources in order to sustain their activities.  By reading urban landscapes, we may begin to understand the historical events that were important for that particular society, where the landscape not only reflects extraordinary occurrences and important events as marked by monuments and other sites of social, historical, or spiritual significance, but also everyday ordinariness that is reproduced by the daily lives and routines of its inhabitants.

Utilizing perspectives from urban environmental history, the city positions itself as an object of study where the way in which the environment has influenced the city and vice-versa is examined.  The history of urban growth and structure and the transformation of the physical and social spaces of the city are also reflected on the surrounding landscapes.  Therefore, we may begin to read the city and interpret its history through understanding the positioning of landscape and urban elements and the important historical, political, and ecological events that have shaped the formation and distribution of these elements.


The city of Xalapa is known colloquially as the “Athens of Veracruz” for its vibrant cultural, music, and art scene, also home to the second largest museum of anthropology in Mexico.  While its colonial aspect is notable in the historic center of the city, the central cathedral constructed in the baroque-gothic style, there are various cultural blends that have influenced the urban esthetic, including the traditional colonial architecture from the central plains of Mexico as well as Caribbean influences from the Gulf of Mexico.  Due to the varied topography of the region, there are uncountable gradients to which the city streets rise and fall, obeying the physical contours of the landscape.  Therefore, the appearance of the city is appreciated by layers, where houses and businesses mount one on top of another according to the effort to build in every nook and cranny of the hilly urban center.

Urban parks are abundant in the central zone of the city, including several of the most renowned:  Parque Juarez, Paseo de los Lagos, Parque de los Tecajetes, Ecological Park Macuiltepetl, Parque el Haya, and the Botanical Gardens of The Ecology Institute.  Parque Juarez was first constructed in 1534 at the historic heart of the city, in the same site that formed the second convent built in all of Mexico.  Xalapa is one of the Mexican capitals with the most green space per habitant, at approximately 57.3 m2 per person.  Despite the abundance of these green spaces, the majority of city residents perceive the “green” in their city to be decreasing dramatically in comparison with the verdant landscapes of the Xalapa that they hold dear to memory.   Recollections of the landscape now center around the rapid conversion in recent years of green, open spaces into ones that are urban.

One recorded history from Rafael Maldonado Bravo details that, “Cuando Xalapa era una ciudad pequeña, pacífica y provinciana, todos los chiquillos de aquella época nos dimos el gusto de emprender una excursión hacia Coapexpan (actualmente convertido en fraccionamiento)… el paisaje se antojaba selvático y podíamos encontrar gran variedad de frutos, sin faltar las hortalizas… en ese entonces se caracterizaba por la exuberancia de plantas silvestres diversas y de ornato…  los arboles… se antojaban gigantescos y lucían una gran variedad de tonos y matices de verde; el pastizal se figuraba una alfombra multicolor, debido a que en algunas zonas había más humedad que en otras… poco a poco, con la urbanización, fue desapareciendo lo que un día represento el lugar de recreo preferido por muchas familias de nuestro Xalapa de ayer.”  The common component of this discourse and many others of the interviewed subjects is that of an idealized, more natural, and simpler past.

Perhaps a better term to describe the city of today would be “cosmopolitan,” where both traditional and modern elements combine and collide both spatially and aesthetically along with the green urban backdrop.  Traditional marketplaces form the central social spaces and meeting places within the city, especially during the morning hours, while a developing commercial sector of large transnational chain stores is directed towards upper-middle class consumers and usually found outside of the tight quadrants of the city’s center within the expanding peripheral developments.  The population is also diverse, and the demographics of the city are strongly influenced by the large population of university students that come to study at the University of Veracruz in Xalapa and also significantly by migrants that hail from rural regions and smaller localities in the state of Veracruz that arrive in search of work opportunities that the city’s large service sector may offer.

Upon further examining the urban form, or the collection of physical, cultural, and spatial characteristics of the city and their distribution, which are defined by architectural traditions including the arrangement and aesthetic of the streets, houses, and other constructions, it is possible to highlight the details that make Xalapa a unique city, in addition to its unique natural landscape.  Some of the most prominent tendencies in Xalapa that have formed the urban landscape are common to many colonial cities in Mexico, including centralism, Baroque styling, as well as a general bond and symbolism imbued to surrounding rural areas and their idealization, all resulting from a long history of cultural syncretism, or blending, of Spanish and indigenous cultures.  Centralism is the tendency for structures and groups of streets and buildings to be grouped around a primary element, such as the cathedral of Xalapa and the central Juarez Park, followed by secondary and tertiary elements.  While centralism has been traditionally associated with the Spanish city, wherein the cathedral is the central and most distinguished element, it is interesting to note that many pre-Hispanic cities have demonstrated the same tendency towards centralism.

The Baroque is mirrored in specific architectural elements that are at once ornate yet classic, designed to communicate a sense of grandeur, in addition to spaces that are separated and segregated by walls and patios to denote and demarcate the public sphere from the private.  It is common for homes within the historic downtown to be situated behind walls that face the street, reflecting a Baroque positioning of space as well as a certain lack of confidence in the outside world.  In the winding streets of Xalapa one encounters both familiarity and privacy in the narrow, flowing streets that unexpectedly discharge into larger, collinear grids and rectangular public spaces.

Another element that has been extensively documented is the attachment of Mexicans to the land, especially to rural and agricultural areas, wherein, for example, the Mexican Revolution of 1910 was largely fought on the basis of a more equitable distribution of land.  Access to and ownership of land has been imbued with meanings about hard, honest work and the betterment of one’s condition or social status, as well as the achievement of self-sufficiency and autonomy.  Perhaps such appreciation of open land is evidence in the confluence of rural lands with the outskirts of many large cities, where the separation between urban and rural is increasingly difficult to discern, such as the case of Xalapa.

However, these defining characteristics of the arrangement of Mexican space and place are also often absent in the most recently built sections of the city.  The built environment can be increasingly considered a reflection of economic interests, where austerity and demand rule over other cultural or social interests, catering to the process by which primary products and natural resources are transformed and given an added value in expanding commercial and urban markets.  Housing tracts of social interest expand in rectangular planes towards the outer limits of the city, lacking in character and refusing to reflect any signs of traditional or cultural architectural elements.  The vernacular, or common, architecture present in the city is communicated by rows of houses and small commercial businesses built of cement to be like boxes, reflecting the cheapest means of construction that may be expanded upon in the future with further construction and second or third floors.

In eyes of many inhabitants, the modernization, growth, and urbanization of the city have been directly linked to the loss of green spaces and areas that once fondly existed in memory.  According to Carlos Álvarez Ramírez, “La ciudad en ese entonces llegaba hasta Belisario Domínguez, ahí terminaban las casas; después seguían una zona de potreros, otra de cultivos de café, maíz, naranjas, plátanos y otros árboles como chininis, duraznos, ciruelas, naranjas de todo tipo:  naranja mandarina, naranja china, naranja de azúcar o la naranja injerta y el naranjo agrio – todavía hasta hace poco había arboles de Naranjo agrio en las aceras de la calle Venustiano Carranza.  Había muchas plantas de ornato, es decir, diversas variedades de flores de la región, tanto en los jardines de las casas como en macetas colgadas de los techos de las aguaderas.  También por estos rumbos se veían muchas aves… gorriones, jilgueros, primaveras, canarios, cotorras y algunas guacamayas.  Se podía encontrar mucho animal de monte como el tejón, el armadillo, ardillas y hasta algunos changos, pero todo eso se fue acabando conforme avanzó la urbanización.”

Perhaps it is interesting to note that many of the interviewed inhabitants were uniquely aware of the negative effects of rapid urbanization, which are easily observed in the perceptibly degraded urban environment.  However, this rapid urbanization is also reflective of other social and cultural changes, such as vast migrations from rural areas to the city, a phenomenon observed in all of Mexico and Latin America.  The spatial array of the city and the landscape is also intimately connected to the social and cultural life of the city, where social interactions are promoted through open, democratic spaces and impeded by the use of closed-off areas.  The lack of urban planning measures in the rapidly expanding urban periphery also translates to other social problems, such as difficulty in transit or lack in access to urban services.  The character of Xalapa as a city not only depends upon the spatial array of its elements but the quality of life that it sustains, in addition to the quality of interactions between its inhabitants.  Places do not only exist statically but they also occur, which is to say that they are dynamically perceived and created on behalf of their inhabitants who assign fluctuating meanings to its varied spaces.  Thus we may consider that perception, on behalf of its inhabitants, is a valid element to the constructed history of any place, city, landscape, or environment, where such perceptions are inevitably charged with moral connotations about what is good or bad and right or wrong.


Much as places are transformed both physically and through the meanings assigned to them by their inhabitants, the interwoven agricultural and natural landscapes of the city are in a constant state of flux, responding to disturbances, both anthropogenic and natural, and demonstrating in return both resilience and transformation.   Xalapa’s natural environment is unique for its beauty and its high biological diversity, located in a mountainous zone within 60 kilometers from the Gulf of Mexico, between 19°26’ and 19°37’ N and 96°58’ and 96°50’ W.  The horizon of the city is dominated by the Cofre de Perote, a mountainous range reaching 14,049 feet in elevation where the trans-Mexican volcanic belt joins the Sierra Madre Oriental, as well as the Pico de Orizaba, a stratovolcano and the highest peak in Mexico at 18,491 feet above sea level.  Which is to say that when the horizon is not dominated by clouds, mist, or fog, some of the common attributes of the region’s temperate humid climate, the panoramic mountain views take over and inject themselves as ever-present elements that are visible from many vantage points within the city.  Thus the city has infused itself to the natural environment, in such a way that hilly streets, humidity, misty days of chipi-chipi, and mountain views are all aspects of the daily life of its inhabitants.

The rapid, unnatural growth of the capital city has somehow adjusted itself to the natural geography.  The city parks and surrounding remnants of vegetation and forest shelter a huge amount of the remaining biodiversity.  At the national level cloud forests make up 0.8% of the Mexican territory yet between 10-12% of all plant species grow preferentially in this environment.  This diversity can be attributed to the topography and physical diversity of the landscape, making the cloud forest environment one of the most biodiverse in the entire world.  The zone is considered as a point of union between flora of neartic and neotropical affinity.

The burgeoning capital of Veracruz also represents a demographically diverse population.  The city is composed of long-terms residents whose familial ties are traced back several generations, in addition to the large wave of new migrants that the city has absorbed from smaller localities and rural areas within the state of Veracruz.  Today Xalapa has an estimated population of 457,614 inhabitants, also this figure would be considerably higher if population from surrounding urban centers was included.  Due to the rapid growth of the city during the last twenty years the environment has changed rapidly and drastically.  The cloud forest that once surrounded the city and the mountainous terrains to the northeast has been fragmented extensively.  It is estimated that only 10% of the original vegetation cover is remaining.  One of the principal causes of deforestation has been disorganized urban growth coupled with agriculture and livestock activities carried out in the outskirts of the city.

The fragmentation of the forested habitat necessarily accompanies habitat loss, and both fragmentation and habitat loss negatively affect the living conditions for many organisms, ultimately resulting in a loss of biodiversity and a detrimental impact on environmental services offered by such habitats.  Due to the fragmentation, the remaining vegetation is encountered in the form of patches throughout the landscape.  An analysis of land uses in mountainous western region of the municipality of Xalapa showed that only 19 fragments of undisturbed cloud forest vegetation remain, composing approximately 10% of the study area. Nonetheless, the largest fragment had an area of 902 hectares in 1993.  The most prominent land uses in the zone are pasture for cattle grazing (37%), urban (18%), secondary vegetation (17%), disturbed forest (17%), and other uses (2%).  Meanwhile, forest fragments are surrounded primarily by pastures (59%) and disturbed forest or secondary vegetation (19%).  The scenario is one of a landscape dominated by cattle ranching and forest fragments with encroaching urban developments.  Another study found a positive correlation between deforestation in the zone and urban growth.  Taking into account these suppositions, it would be interesting to understand what is happening in the wider landscape panorama in areas of secondary vegetation and disturbed forest, which could signify a process of recuperation of a heavily degraded region, which is unclear.

While deforestation represents a negative scenario for many species of flora and fauna, it is possible that it also creates unique environmental conditions that may favor other species or ecological processes.  Thus, in a sense, whether or not these processes may be evaluated as negative or positive depends upon the perspective.  In a region like Xalapa, as well as many parts of the world, local species provided not only important environmental services to those living in cities but also represent a source of primary production and extraction for many families who still depend on them and still have largely subsistence lifestyles.

However, loss of habitat has many negative implications, for example, forest fragments may vary widely in species composition, possibly steering towards a loss of species richness over time as fragments remain isolated.  The sensitivity of a particular species to fragmentation depends largely on its intrinsic characteristics.  For example, certain guilds, or groups of species that exploit the same resources in a similar way, are very specialized, such as insectivorous birds, which are vulnerable to the effects of fragmentation.  Upon eliminating or altering vegetation the availability of food for certain other species may be subsequently modified.  A total of thirteen species of hummingbirds depend upon the bush Palicourea padifoli (Rubiaceae), in addition to other bird species that consume its flowers during springtime.  The reduction or even extinction of local species can result in the extinction of other counterparts.

Perhaps this synopsis is one that is common through the Mexican tropics, one of deforestation and the rapid loss of vegetation cover, principally due to cattle ranching or other productive activities.  Traditional narratives of environmental history in Latin America have been disaster focused, which is to say that the environment has usually been portrayed as degraded on behalf of human activities and inhabitants and often dominated by the implicit argument that conservation offers the best solution to combatting such environmental destruction.   In the case of Xalapa, referencing the destruction of the natural environment, while perhaps objectively accurate in many circumstances, would only paint a partial picture and negate the complex relationship that pre-Hispanic peoples had with the natural environment and its modification, a process initiated long before the arrival of the Spanish to the Americas.

The biological and ecology diversity of the Americas, in a sense, is both a component and a product of a long history of human settlement in the region.  While the origin of the city of Xalapa lies at the foothills of the hill of Macuiltepetl, a hill that is found at the geographic center of the city and that is visible from many vantage points around the city.  At the moment of arrival of the Spanish the region was occupied by a Totonaca settlement, although it has experienced cultural influences from Coastal Olmecas, Teotihuacan, Toltecas, Teochicimecas, and Tenochas historically.  The indigenous habitants possessed a sophisticated agricultural technology and drastically modified the landscape, where the rotation of crops often relied upon and integrated processes of secondary succession or regrowth of the native forested landscape.  However, after the Spanish arrived a demographic collapse in the indigenous population occurred due mainly to the spread of diseases to which the local populations did not have resistance.  It is estimated that up to 90% of the regional indigenous population was decimated, and the population density of Xalapa in pre-Hispanic times did not recover during a period of five centuries, until the 1920s.


The ancient evidence of landscape use by indigenous peoples as well as the recent and drastic transformation of the landscape are evidence of the problematic conception of pristine wilderness or conservation worthy forest.  The historic landscape paints us a picture of a flowing, dynamic landscape, often in transition and enduring processes of disturbance and recuperation at the same time, whether at the hand of man or naturally occurring.

This brings us to the concept of the non-equilibrium state of ecosystems that is currently accepted and recognized as part of the natural dynamic of many ecosystems.  Disturbances are constantly occurring in natural systems, where we can acknowledge disturbances as discrete events that interrupt an ecosystem, community, or population structure and changes the sources of resources, the availability of substrate, or the physical environment, whether of anthropogenic or natural in origin.  Natural and human disturbances, along with successional processes, operate in the same spatial and temporal scales within forests, where such disturbances are a determining mechanism in the composition and structure of tropical forests and include clearings produced by fallen branches or trees that form gaps in the canopy.

Just like the variable state of the ecological landscape, the historical and social landscape may be considered to follow the same patterning, heterogeneous, wherein both individual and cultural histories are not universally accepted nor understood but may be considered part of the subjectivity of the human experience.  Both spatially, across human landscapes, and temporally, conceptions and explanations of historical events vary by culture or region, where institutionally backed “official” histories may be accepted by local inhabitants, contested, or rejected, ultimately influencing their identities, where historical events or origins are often linked to a sense of heritage or belonging.


The urban environmental history of Xalapa is capable of blurring the lines between the distinction of urban and rural.  Today, Xalapa stands as the rapidly growing capital of the state of Veracruz, but at its founding in colonial times was considered a provincial city, existing merely as a stopping point along the Camino Real, the road that allowed for transport of goods and peoples between the port of Veracruz and the central City of Mexico.  Due to its temperate tropical climate, location, and the abundance of water, the area was considered ideal for agricultural development and production, which has been key to the city’s development and economy since the arrival of the Spanish and continues to form a significant sector of the local economy.

Since the arrival of the Spanish, Xalapa existed as a center of production and consumption of agricultural products, as well as a convenient outpost along the Camino Real.  Thus the growth of agriculture has shaped and stimulated the economy and physical spaces of the city.  Meanwhile, the city has served as a center for managing and financing surrounding large-scale agricultural productions, where at one point the outskirts of Xalapa was home to several extensive haciendas.  Therefore, rural Xalapa has been intimately linked to the growth of urban Xalapa, and this correlation has only been recently complicated by the arrival of large quantities of migrants to the city looking to find more stable economic opportunities in the large service sector.

The association between the growth of cities and that of agriculture is a long-rooted, where since the beginning of human civilization a relationship has existed between productive forces, agriculture, the transformation of the landscape, and the concentration of people in nearby cities, which now has reached its maximum manifestation in the current dominant political economics of capitalism.  The historical example of Teotihuacan, the urban metropolis of the Aztecs in the central plain of Mesoamerica, may be considered the first truly urban center in Mexico.  After the arrival of the Spanish, the economy was forcefully oriented towards mining, agriculture, and cattle ranching, which explains the distribution and growth of colonial cities in zones that favored these activities.  What most characterized the pre-colonial urban landscape was its dependence on the founding of royal mines, administrative and military impositions, along with commercial and storage centers for the extensive haciendas and agricultural operations that functioned on extensive tracts of land and often at the hands of forced labor.  All of these elements were integrated beneath a hegemonic system and monopoly of power that were concentrated under the colonial government, which assured that the economy remain largely rural.  Before the war of Mexican independence in 1810 approximately 60% of the population worked in livestock and agriculture, 13% in manufacturing and public works, and 12% in mining operations.

Locally, the landscape of Xalapa was most characterized by extensive haciendas of agricultural production, mainly the cultivation of sugarcane and coffee.  By the end of the 16th century at least ten coffee mills were already operating in the region of Xalapa.  Such products were introduced for commercial production, national as well as international, and demand for these products had begun to replace more traditional agricultural crops, such as the Mexican staple of corn.  Xalapa, in contrast to other colonial cities, was not entrusted to local rulers or Spanish administrative authorities but remained directly influenced by the Spanish crown.

The subsequent urban growth of the region in the 18th century was associated with Xalapa’s status as a regional market, where regional agricultural and primary products were traded and sold, leading to Xalapa fame as the “City of Flowers.”  However by the year 1778 a free trade agreement was signed for all of Hispanic territory, which caused Xalapa to decrease in importance as a trade center, while the port of Veracruz increased in importance.  Yet throughout the 19th century Xalapa remained as a center of small commerce and as a financial center where capital and investments in primary productions were managed.

Between 1760 and 1821 the Bourbon dynasty in Spain introduced a series of political reforms that had the objective of remodeling the internal situation of the Spanish peninsula and its colonies.  Upon implementing their vision, a new concept of state emerged where economic, political, and administrative powers were concentrated.  The 19th century was a conflictive era, including the movement for independence (1810-1821), a series of epidemics, a war with Texas that ended with the annexation by United States of half of the Mexican territory, as well as the French invasion by Maximiliano de Habsburgo (1864-65).  The end of the century ended with the coming to power of Porfirio Diaz (1877-1910), who consolidated capitalism in Mexico.

Beginning with the movement for independence, economic as well as demographic growth decelerated due to insecurity in rural areas in addition to the disruption of means of communication that fostered trade and growth.  However, the central region of Veracruz, including Xalapa, remained relatively indifferent to the conflicts of 19th century, if only for its geographic location that physically removed the region from the centers of political and social unrest.  In the region of Xalapa commerce was the principal source of accumulation of capital, and within the city a significant sector of the population, property holders, and owners of commercial businesses had direct Spanish descendants, and thus they were in favor of the colonial structures that favored their position and largely unsympathetic to the causes of the Mexican War of Independence and Revolution that followed a century later.

Large commercial holders from within the city commonly diversified their capital by investing in agricultural productions, whether by investing in or buying haciendas, flour mills, livestock for both meat and dairy production, or the granting of loans or mortgages to other farmers.  While there was a great investment in textile factories between the years of 1835 and 1845, the industry never flourished, in part due to the geographic location of Xalapa, where all heavy machinery had to be imported from far-away assembly sites.

Therefore, while the connection of city elites to its agricultural outskirts is well established, this scheme began to change by the middle half of the 19th century when the large haciendas began to divide due to increasing diversification of capital and investment.  Slowly but surely, alongside the large land-owners, small-time ranchers began to emerge.  Up until that moment the hacienda had been a significant factor in forging social relations in the rural outskirts of Xalapa, defined by the complex relationships between the owners, administrators, laborers, and tenants.  However, this model was slowly replaced by a new scheme of familial labor and seasonal workers, where  the two were socially reproduced well into the 20th century, often existing side by side.

By the end of the 19th century Xalapa was beginning to experience marked population increases due to its increasing importance as an economic and commercial center, the textile factories, the café plantations, livestock production, increasing investment in agriculture and livestock, as well as the transfer of state powers and functions to the city.  The increase in population was also reflected in a larger market for agricultural products.  The primary products and food necessary to sustain the city signified an increased demand for milk, meat, cheese, and other products.  Meanwhile other agricultural products, like sugarcane and coffee, gradually received more stimuli through external markets and due to an increasing national demand.

The agricultural mosaic, mixed with remnants of cloud forest, resulted in an aesthetically pleasing landscape upon which many historical commentaries have been made.  Throughout the 19th century Xalapa was frequented by travelers and adventurers, Alexander von Humboldt being one of the famous names to visit the region.  The travelers detailed stories of ecological richness and beauty and the presence of large quantities of unique natural products.   La naturaleza ha enriquecido a la provincia de Veracruz con los productos más preciosos… Xalapa, al pie de la montaña de basalto de Macuiltépetl, en situación muy amena… se goza de una vista magnífica, descubriéndose desde él los picos colosales del Cofre y de Orizaba, la falda de la cordillera hacia el Lencero, Otates y Apazapa, el río de la Antigua y el Océano.”

At the turn of the 20th century Xalapa was gaining recognition for its cultural and intellectual environment due to its educated inhabitants of Spanish descendants, tied by family and business relationships to the port of Veracruz.  In spite of its cultural fame, by the end of the 19th century there are already registries and primary sources that note a marked decline in the natural environment.  Those who had lived there for many years assured that the “chipi-chipi” and light rain no longer occurred with the same frequency and that the historic environment was far more beautiful, even pre-dating the urban explosion of the late 20th century.

Several regional infrastructure projects that provided further stimuli to city growth were carried out at the end of the 19th century, such as the construction of infrastructure for managing water, as well as telephone and rail lines.  A strong impulse was placed on education in the entire central region of Veracruz.  Upon the initial phase of the regime of Porfirio Diaz, a new wave of demands was articulated by the regional oligarchs:  peace, order, and progress.  The new discourse promoted progress and prosperity for all.  Innovations in rural technology for agricultural use were promoted, although not always widely adopted, as in the central region of Veracruz and in the outskirts of Xalapa many agricultural and livestock fields are not managed technologically or intensively.

During the stability and the consolidation of a market system of regional and national free trade, the central region of Veracruz entered into a wider commercial market.  The introduction of rail transport  initiated a process that expanded local and regional markets.  Although during this time the region was experiencing a slow urbanization, the majority of inhabitants still lived in rural areas of low population density.  Throughout the 20th century the state of Veracruz shifted towards an increasingly urban society.  In subsequent years, between 1900 and 1940, Mexico experienced an increasing annual rate of urbanization of 10.6% and 20%, respectively.


While the city’s developmental connection to agriculture has been addressed, the historical importance and even precedence of cattle ranching must not be dismissed.  In fact, in the immediate outskirts of Xalapa, cattle ranching represents the most extensive land use, in spite of the fact that the area naturally shelters forested vegetation.  Thus, historically and currently, enormous efforts have occurred to clear natural vegetation and make way for cattle.  Before the 20th century, cattle grazed on native grasses, while in the beginning of the 20th century the introduction of new cattle varieties and exotic grasses further impacted the landscape.  Many scholars have lamented the replacement of biodiverse vegetation throughout Mexico and Latin America with cattle ranching, a seemingly harsh land use for such rich natural environs.

However, many cattle ranchers have integrated forested elements within their pastures, such as living fences, or rows of trees left behind to demarcate fields and separate pastures, as well as isolated trees or riparian vegetarian along waterways.  Such elements serve to connect the larger landscape, where isolated trees may serve as potential regeneration nuclei by attracting fruit-eating birds and bats whom later defecate seeds beneath the crowns of the trees.  The management practice of leaving behind trees has occurred throughout the Mesoamerican landscape for 500 years since the arrival of the Spanish and has aided in the regeneration of native vegetation during times when the pastures were abandoned.

Additionally, the number of heads of cattle that have existed in the Mexican state of Veracruz has varied dramatically according to broader social and political events.  The Mexican Revolution of 1910 dramatically changed the Mexican landscape, where in central Veracruz a demographic collapse occurred with rural areas suffering  the greatest impact.  In one rural central locality of Veracruz it is estimated that up to 60% of livestock production was lost due to abandonment and violence, stimulating a migration from rural areas to the cities.  Perhaps the tension in rural areas was also inspired by the participation and revolutionary support of the “middle” ranchers.  Whereas the ranchers who held large extensions of land were in favor of the current political economic system that favored their privileged position, the “middle” ranchers of new money often had ties to the city where they had gained their money through commercial endeavors and later re-invested in livestock.   Such “middle” ranchers held the highest stakes in the Mexican Revolution, a conflict that spread by those whom sought for a more equitable distribution of land.  These ranchers formed a new social class that had received formal education and therefore held a social consciousness with regards to equality and land rights within the national context.

Yet a major consequence of these conflicts in rural areas was the evacuation or abandoning of rural farms and livestock holdings by landowners, where for example, between 1902 and 1924 cattle herds within the state of Veracruz decreased from 683,000 to 206,000.  The implications that this would have for the natural environment and ecological functioning of the landscape are also astounding.  In the post-revolutionary period, the state governments of Veracruz proposed an ambitious project to stabilize the countryside and to link primary schools in rural and agricultural zones to experimental farms with the goal of fomenting a more modernized form of agriculture and cattle ranching.  During the leadership of the radical post-revolutionary leaders, an even more aggressive form of intervention in agricultural regions was promoted, one example being of the distribution of land to previously landless citizens.  One consequence of such reforms was the deepening of the role of the administrative powers of the state in the structure and productive forces of rural areas.

The high point of expansive cattle ranching took place in Mexico and many countries in tropical regions of the world after the 1940s, where it has been argued that the priorities of international finance, inversion, and the existence of a strong international market for livestock products has fomented its growth and expansion.  However, in Mexico and particularly Veracruz, numerous state agencies have promoted cattle ranching through offering subsidies and benefits to ranchers.  Since the 1960s, cattle ranching in Mexico received extensive credits on behalf of the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank, according to some authors, such as Feder (1982), such credits had a more hostile objective of controlling production and commercialization of agro-products at the local level from the top-down.

While cattle ranching has been blamed for the transformation of the natural vegetation in Veracruz, converting itself into a symbol of the rupture between the balance of nature and man, from other point of view many cattle ranchers had to be attentive to the dynamics of natural systems for their survival.  Due to the fact that many farmers practice open range techniques with little intensification and lack of infrastructure, the most common kind of ranching practiced in the central region of Veracruz, cattle ranchers needed to be in touch with seasonal changes, wherein the rainy seasons are of great importance for the growth of grasses and the fattening of their cows.

On one hand the scenario that currently dominates the landscape of the outskirts of urban Xalapa is one of cattle ranchers with small properties, who work their land nobly and endure hardships to attain self-sufficiency and autonomy, often times dependent upon government grants and stimuli.  On the other hand, large tracts of land have been bought up to usher in a more commercially viable form of more intensified and larger ranching operations, which persist and intermingle with small property owners in search in search of self-sufficiency.


This same tendency of the intermingling of small and large property owners is also found spatially within another regional agricultural commodity: coffee.  In Xalapa and in Mexico in general coffee plantations are located in biogeographical zones favorable to the cultivation of the coffee plant, often between tropical and temperate biomes.  The weather in the region of Xalapa favors a variety of coffee plants, which are unable to tolerate exposure to temperatures below freezing.  The introduction of coffee to the region occurred at the end of the 18th century, and the impact of coffee plantations on the surrounding landscape can be considered from several points of view.  On one hand, forest cover has been maintained due to the traditional cultivation of coffee below the shade of the forest canopy, in which trees are left behind, most often from the genus Inga or Jinicuil.  This forms the dominant production method, and the use of shade trees helps to protect the fertility of the soil, reduces erosion, offers organic material, in addition to creating environments that are friendlier for biodiversity.

However, in the international market coffee prices have been increasingly volatile in recent years, causing difficulties for local producers, especially those who own small-scale coffee plantations (Williams-Linera, 2007).  In addition, seasonal and climate fluctuations have often led to the ruin of an entire season of coffee crops, where small-scale farmers have little possibility to insure themselves against such risks.  In addition, more countries have entered into the international coffee market, due to stimuli provided by financing programs, both international and local in origin, leading to an increasing saturation of the market.

In the region that extends from Xalapa towards the smaller localities of Coatepec and Teocelo, where the largest surface area of coffee plantations in found, the most frequently encountered varieties are Arabic, Bourbon, Mundo Novo, and Caturra.  The number of plants per hectare is relatively low, and while the coffee from the region is considered to be of good quality the output is low in comparison with other Latin American countries.  In part this is due to the traditional production methods that are still employed in the region, although the number of plantations with increasing grades of intensification and extension are beginning to proliferate, including the expanded use of agrochemicals.

Up until the 1960s there were only five large exporters of coffee in the Xalapa region.  There were historically linked to wealthy haciendas and large land owners.  In recent decades small producers have begun to proliferate, in part due to increasing national and international demand and the division and selling of large coffee plantations.   Today less than 10% of the producers in the Xalapa regional landscape have more than five hectares of land.  It is commonplace that small-time producers or landowners are unable to process the grain from start to finish, and many sell the coffee grain raw at the lowest possible price, while those who process, toast, sell, or prepare the coffee in local coffee shops obtain the greatest benefit from its aggregated value.  Thus, we may began to conceptualize the urban landscape as one that is highly diversified at the small, local scale, with assorted environs and micro climates that support a large number of human, biological, and ecological activities and interactions.


In Mexico the relationship between the city and the surrounding rural hinterlands has long been characterized by a considerable socioeconomic disparity, where city inhabitants experience a greater standard of living and better access to social and other city services.  While cities offer their advantages, problems often characterized as environmental occur frequently in the city, such as the accumulation of trash.  Other problems may not be as visible, such as the degradation of soil, water, and air conditions.  Many of such problems are linked to the rapid rhythm of urbanization, in addition to the lack of enforcement of urban planning measures.  In Xalapa weekly news stories published by the local newspaper center on the environmental problems of the city, focusing on the large quantity of illegal or semi-legal new housing developments lacking in adequate provision of city services, in addition to the large quantity of constructed housing within the spaces of the city that have been designated as natural or open spaces.

The most recent regional plan for development has demonstrated a noble and extensive commitment to promoting an ecological and social consciousness in urban and regional developmental initiatives.  In this sense, the complications stemming from urban development and lack thereof could be more related to lack of historical capacity rather than indifference.  The resulting visual urban environment is one of great inequality.  Large residential developments and transnational commercial tracts often exist alongside large extensions of decrepit, illegal, or semi-legal housing.  Understanding the political commitment to urban planning and lack of actual planning within the urban environment may be better understood in the local context of Xalapa by examining the historical context of territorial and urban planning in Mexico.

Historically, the initiative to establish a legal framework for urban planning occurred in the post-revolutionary period with a series of reforms that aimed to consolidate spatial control over the territory.  Such initiatives would have tremendous influence over regional economies as well, designating zones to either a commercial or industrial destiny.  Political groups argued for a greater government intervention in economic development in the new Constitution of 1917, which would have enormous impact over spatial and urban planning as well.  The Agrarian Reform Law of 1915, which was incorporated to the constitution, is one of the first efforts to influence the organization of the territory systematically at the level of the nation by stating and defining the function of private and communal property, as well as the attributions of states and municipalities in territorial planning.

The model of Mexico as an exporter of agricultural goods to the rest of the world, which had consolidated capitalism within the country, changed after the 1940’s, when new policies of isolation and import substitutions took hold until the mid-1950’s.  During this time large federal investments were made in the construction of roads and infrastructure for the management of water.  While these two decades are considered the Mexican miracle, a time of economic growth and prosperity in which between 1940 and 1950 the gross domestic product (GDP) increased annually by 5.8%.  Between 1970 and 1980 the model began to weaken, and the lack of focused politics to promote investigation and technology began to limit the capacity of the Mexican state to produce national goods of quality, as once again the flood of international competition took hold over the de-regulated markets.

The impulse of economic development and industry has influenced urban form in Mexico, where according to Garza (2003) since the 1970’s, “the central priority has been to develop industry, without taking into account the spatial concentration or the increase of regional inequalities that certain development efforts could entail, and without visualizing the grave consequences that such politics would have over the deterioration of the metropolitan ecosystems.”  At the end of the 1970’s around 55% of the total population resided in urban zones, which marked the beginning of the urban explosion in Mexico and the consolidation of the one-metropolis national model, with Mexico City at the center of large, unplanned growth followed by several other large secondary cities, developing due to particular industry and commercial impulses, such as Monterrey and Guadalajara.  Thus, Garza refers to what he calls virtual planning, in the sense that urban plans have largely existed on paper but given way to other economic or industrial interests that have been historically prioritized.

Within the decade of 1980’s neoliberal restructuring of the political economy began to take place, where the national economy was furthered opened to foreign markets.  An economic crisis took hold, further promoting migration to the cities.  In Xalapa in particular, during the 1980s the urbanization boom began, in which unorderly growth and zoning has resulted largely in the disappearance of the original cloud forest vegetation, where it is now estimated that only 10% remains.  The effects of national political economy are seen at the local level of landscape transformation.

Under a scheme of neoliberal reforms, it has been argued that economic interactions took precedent over other political rights and social services, resulting in a heterogeneous and unequal urban growth.  Urban elements and distribution were increasingly centered on the movement of capital within city environments and the associated necessities.  The resulting urban environment forms a model that not only characterizes Xalapa, but also other Mexican cities, where economic growth has taken precedence over other aspects that could also be considered key to the quality of life within the city, such as the protection of green spaces, the reduction of contamination, or the offering of social and health services.


While merely looking at the current land use scenario, where an estimated 10% of the original cloud forest vegetation remains, the state of the Xalapa landscape could assumed to be dire.  Natural environs have undoubtedly been negatively affected, yet by analyzing the conditions of the landscape in a historical context we may appreciate its dynamic state of non-equilibrium, in which disturbances and regenerations, both natural and anthropogenic, are occurring simultaneously, spatially and temporally.  Natural history is interwoven with that of cultural and social history, where human perceptions form part of a complex process by which humans assess the surrounding landscapes and evaluate changes in the landscape over time.  Such a vision of environmental change is more integral, and although there may be truth to common scenarios of environmental crisis and degradation, there is a missing focus on the creation, regeneration, and resilience of natural landscapes, which may be transforming themselves as self-sustaining novel landscapes and ecosystems without historical precedent.  We may consider that the landscape that is currently found does not necessarily represent a lineal or rational development.

The interviewed inhabitants of Xalapa commonly referenced a Xalapa of before and after, although we consider that both Xalapas exist side-by-side in the present day landscape.  The Xalapa of before, described as a “huge ranch” (interview) has change significantly in the past three decades, growing and rapidly urbanizing over uneven terrain in which cloud forest vegetation once existed.  The cloud forest that was characterized by the presence of fog and mist has been integrated into the identity of many inhabitants in the region that remember with nostalgia rainy days of chipi-chipi, although according to most interviewees these days have begun to diminish in frequency.  Thus, the memories of a landscape that has rapidly changed are the most frequent recollections of the inhabitants when referencing the local landscape, always speaking of an idealized past and deteriorated present, in which such ideas also carry intrinsic ethical and moral messages about landscape change and deterioration.

While the Xalapa of before was characterized by light drizzle, stone-paved, winding streets, the presence of fog during a large portion of the year, abundant streams and natural springs of clean water, green vegetation that adjoined the city, coffee and orange plantations, a temperate climate, and various urban parks that served as points of recreation and reunion between the city’s inhabitants.  It was essentially a provincial city that sustained itself on agricultural and livestock activities in the surrounding rural landscapes, in addition to serving as a growing political, administrative, and commercial center for the state of Veracruz.

The Xalapa of after, according to those interviewed, is marked by rapid growth towards the outer urban limits, extending itself in the latest decades towards nearby municipalities and substituting the once natural and abundant vegetation with new housing and other constructions.  During many hours of the day there is an excessive traffic, and cars disproportionately fill the city’s center and narrow streets built before the advent of the automobile.  The colonial aspect of the downtown is lost towards the outskirts, where the demands of the market impose a practical and austere architecture where constructions now extend towards the city’s periphery like stacked boxes.  Once upon a time a provincial city, the traditional elements and personality of the city are rapidly being lost, now plagued by a false development where the provision of many city services essential to a high standard of living are lacking for numerous inhabitants.  The homogenization of urban environments, characteristic of globalization, has transformed Xalapa, which now incorporates itself as part of a national and global network of cities connected by business and capital, where the urban concept tends to become increasingly uniform.

However, if one examines the landscape, the Xalapa of before and after co-exist, side by side, in the urban landscape.  Between the isolated trees one encounters remnants of vegetation that are visible from many vantage points throughout the city, including the majestic views of the Cofre de Perote and Pico de Orizaba.  It is common to encounter fauna, birds, and native plants within the urban environment, in parks as well as in the surrounding green areas.  During the trajectory of a normal day between places of home, work, and recreation, the citizens of Xalapa can still find aspects of the original landscape, including native vegetation and agricultural or livestock fields, in addition to both the old and modern buildings and other city elements.  Along the urban street corners the rural is reflected through the women who position themselves to sell fruits, vegetables, agricultural products, or tortillas made by hand, as they move daily between their rural homes and urban outposts.  Culturally and spatially, the relationship between the before and after, the city and its rural outskirts, is confused and mixed in the urban landscape.  Today the boundaries between cities and their natural or rural surroundings are permeable and constantly fluctuating.

More directed perceptions of typical landscapes were also obtained from the interviews with the inhabitants of Xalapa, where pictures of several typical landscapes of the region that contained elements that would be perceived as both urban and natural were compared.  Respondents were asked to identify their favorite landscapes and explain their preference.  While the majority of respondents preferred natural landscapes, there are interesting differences in preferences if the socioeconomic profile of the respondents is taken into consideration.  Using multivariate statistic techniques and in particular multiple correspondence analysis, several profiles of people were created by agglomerating their socio-economic characteristics, such as gender, age, occupation, level of education, place of birth, location within the city, and years spent living in the city.  Examining these agglomerations allowed for trends in preferences to be identified.  Young women, without children, under 35 years in age, born outside of the city of Xalapa have a tendency to prefer landscapes perceived as natural.  Meanwhile, the landscapes of before are still profoundly anchored in the memories and preferences of men above 35 years of age, born in Xalapa, whom demonstrate stronger preference for agricultural, urban, and modified landscapes.

In light of these preferences, it is interesting to note that people born outside of Xalapa are more likely to prefer the native vegetation than those born within the city.  Such preferences may be better understood by taking into consideration the historical context, where we now understand the urban landscape since the arrival of the Spanish as one that was historically rural and characterized by agricultural activities and cattle ranching, where perhaps for the Xalapa region what is natural has always been relative. The landscape has experienced a long history of modification by both indigenous populations, the Spanish colonizers, and the more recent urbanization of the landscape.

The importance of perception radiates in its ability to explain why the landscape is found in its present day, where the landscapes that people prefer are often the ones that they tend to reproduce and search for.  It is an approach to understand the vision that the local people have of the landscape and the transformation of the environment, in addition to the causes that explain the metamorphosis of the landscape.  In general, a perception may be considered an attitude, belief, or emotional response that one has in reaction to a landscape, in this case the response was largely emotional on the basis of one’s reaction to the preferred landscape during the survey.  A perception is formed by both internal and external influences, where the internal influences are represented by individual experiences with the landscape and natural environments, perhaps especially during childhood when a basis for comparison with subsequent interactions with the environment is formed.  External influences are often partially internal, such as socioeconomic status, place of birth, etc., and also include influence on behalf of information about the landscape and environment received through media outlets, education, and other means of communication that inform about the state of the environment, including international environmentalist movements that have popularized a discourse on the importance of conserving and protecting the natural environment.


In a way the Xalapa of before and after carry implicit moral messages, evoking a certain nostalgia that many habitants feel for the past.  However, this corresponds with a human tendency to appreciate and idealize the past on the basis of our previous experiences, where we are predisposed to like the environment that we encountered frequently or in which we were surrounded during childhood.  What is also expressed in these considerations of a changed Xalapa before the eyes of those interviewed is worry and doubt in the face of the recent and drastic change towards an, at times, uncertain future.  Existing urban planning efforts have been unable to respond to these apprehensions of the Xalapan urbanites, while other social and ecological dynamics, such as vast migrations from rural areas to the city, have evidenced enormous changes in the landscapes and in a certain way superseded other concerns, such as those to conserve the green spaces of the city and surrounding territories.  The impulse of free markets and the expanding of local markets and agricultural goods to the national and international level have provoked uncertainty where fluctuations in markets and far-away places are now increasingly reflected in local land uses and landscape mosaics.  Only conceptualizing urban Xalapa as an intricate part of a regional landscape, considering urban elements, rural elements, natural vegetation, and agricultural production oriented towards an integrated whole, will quality of life be conserved for the habitants of the city towards the future.

Much of the discontent that is expressed by Xalapans about the changing landscape corresponds with environmental discourses that are popularized at the global level.  A discourse may be understood as a systematic way of talking and thinking about an object or concept (Foucault, 2002), and is also considered to be shared meaning and understanding about a certain phenomenon among a set group of people (Adger, 2001).  The loss of biodiversity, deforestation, and uncontrolled urbanization are not only themes published in the local news but also pervasive in a variety of media, such as television channels, cable, internet, and other international news sources and dialogues.  The deterioration of the landscape over time that is expressed by its inhabitants, although specific to the region of Xalapa, at the same time represents a generalized international discourse on environmental problems at the global level, where the same complaints could be applied to various urban spheres surrounded by native vegetation of ecological and biological importance.  However, most respondents refer to themselves, or the citizens of Xalapa, and those who are most responsible for taking care of the landscape and preventing its degradation, which in a sense is an individualistic focus versus other potential sources of contamination and degradation, such as land owners, cattle ranchers, business owners, or even the municipal government.

Therefore, according to the habitants of the city, being a citizen of Xalapa does not only entertain political, social, and economic rights, but also environmental, which include access and appreciation of natural areas, parks, and open spaces as well as their care and stewardship.  Discontent with social or housing conditions were expressed often as environmental problems. For example, overpopulation, traffic, and the lack of better housing opportunities were often formulated as environmental problems. Thus, concerns over the landscape and environment of the inhabitants of Xalapa are often linked in a complex way to frustrations with other social and economic conditions of the city, where citizens’ hope for a better future is reflected in an idealized landscape: conserved, green, beautiful, and esthetically appealing, in contrast to the urban ills that they associate with the many grievances of their daily life, such as trash in the streets, excessive traffic, and visible contamination.  In this sense, the landscapes of Xalapa do not only represent past ecological, historical, and cultural events, but also future scenarios of hope for a better future.

Returning to the concept of landscapes existing in a state of non-equilibrium (Turner, 2003), where disturbances are part of the natural dynamics of many ecosystems, for a highly heterogeneous landscape like that of Xalapa it is difficult to make temporal and spatial distinctions between the physical spaces of the city.  Instead, we propose the concept of a landscape constantly in flux, where disturbances are multiple, but exist side by side processes of regeneration and recuperation of natural systems.  Urban environmental histories may occur much in the same format, where secondary historical sources can be complementary to new and changing ideas about the landscape and its history, expressed through popular accounts and memories of the environment.

Urban landscapes of Xalapa may in fact come to form novel ecosystems, passing a point of no-return in which regeneration of historical landscapes is perhaps unconceivable, yet also forming new instances of ecological interactions that are self-sustaining.  Under this scenario, urban and landscape planning is not static nor does it idealize the past state of ecosystems, but rather takes into account the functionality of the landscape as a whole and the promotion of spaces that respond to human necessities and demands, including the need to be in contact with natural landscapes and their importance for human sustenance.  The historical conception of the landscape is not static, but at times idealized or retrofitted with new moralities about the value of conservation or the detriment of large cities due to urbanization, as reflected by contemporary perceptions of the history and landscape and land uses in the region of Xalapa.  Reflecting upon the landscape history of a given region may give us insights into the application of such knowledge towards future regional planning and re-conceptualizations of urban, natural, agricultural, and environmental spheres.


A list of my favorite journals/publications/websites

I regularly read the following journals/publications/websites:

  • Nature (academic)
  • Science (academic)
  • Popular Science
  • Smithsonian
  • Orion
  • Scientific American

I also enjoy the Best American Science & Nature Writing anthology. A new volume comes out yearly and with a different editor (and hence different opinion and selection criteria), and I always enjoy reading the article compilations on a very wide range of subjects for all interests and tastes. Truly some of the best!

Although, I never have enough time to read everything I want! So I try to divide my time and focus on the best. By exposing myself to Nature & Science articles, I am hoping to read a breadth of articles and topics and also appreciate the writing and stay on top of new and upcoming trends.

Meanwhile, Popular Science is a very gadget/technology focused publication, and a lot of their articles are very short. I consider this magazine to be entertainment more than anything, and I have a feeling a lot of the gadgets they write about are hidden advertisements in a sense. They must certainly receive some sort of income stream from writing about these different products. But again, I find it interesting to stay on top of new trends and gadgets, since I am admittedly not very tech-savvy or gadget-oriented. I don’t want to become one of those people that doesn’t know how to use a smart phone (or its equivalent) in about 20 years. Maybe I can train my brain to remain young forever ;).

Smithsonian always has a nice balance of science and culture, which I like. They have really excellent articles on conservation and archaeology every once in a while, and the writing style is less academic. I try to expose myself to different writing styles and expand beyond just academic and technical writing, because I think there is something to learn in doing so. A lot of their articles take on an in-depth journalism style.

Orion is one of my favorite publications, and it highlights very excellent nature writing. I would label it more in the realm of fiction writing and personal essays on the subject of nature, technology, and culture. They also focus on sense of place, and some of their writing takes on a descriptive or exposé bent, showcasing different places and their uniqueness. A lot of poetry, artwork, photography, and beautiful imagery are weaved between the pages, and so you also get a little bit of everything.

Scientific American is an interesting magazine because I consider it to be the most scientific of the popular science magazines. Their articles are in-depth and directed towards an educated and interested audience, and they certainly aren’t fluff either. Topics go beyond cliché conservation pieces and delve in a wide breadth of recent scientific findings, from findings on health to the science of sleep to ant sociology.

Two publications I don’t enjoy: Discover and National Geographic. Discover seems to publish a lot of what other magazines publish, several months later and with far worse writing. National Geographic is a beautiful publication and contains wonderful photography and imagery, but they might as well just convert themselves into a photo-log, since I find their topics to be extraordinarily ordinary. Interesting travel pieces, but they follow a very specific formula again, and again… and again.

From, I am able to learn about an even wider variety of recent scientific findings. Their topics aren’t limited to “hard science” (I have a B.A., nothing against the softer sciences), and they also have excellent coverage of just about everything. I enjoy reading their topics on anthropology & archaeology, health, and science & society.

Shortest Book Review: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Occasionally, I read a book or see a movie that blows me out of the water. I especially enjoy this sensation when I was expecting to mildly enjoy the book or film, yet it far exceeded my expectations. I had this exact feeling while reading this book.

Taking place during World War II, the story outlines the lives of two children who become teenagers during the war and are swept along with it.

At this point in time, I don’t really enjoy war stories, especially anything about World War II. But in a sense, the war itself forms more of the backdrop of the novel, and the lives of a German orphan named Werner and a blind girl, Marie-Laure, take center stage.

It many ways this novel is about human connection and those instantaneous connections that can last a lifetime, and indeed, the ways that we are connected to one another, even by the most minor details and occurrences.

Doerr manages to create a very suspenseful narrative, which is well-balanced between action-packed scenes and musings on the interconnections of the world.

And he delights the senses in his descriptions, especially those of Marie-Laure, perhaps due to his very wise choice of a blind girl as a main character, who is more perceptive of the things that others cannot see.

Doerr is also the official king of metaphors, and his descriptions of the world and in particular, the natural world and the life of the cities/countryside/backdrop of the war, are often so stark and contrasting that it makes you think twice, once again, about the connections between things that are so unseemingly intertwined.

In the meantime, I have also finished another book: The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins.

I really enjoyed the novel and found it entertaining. This is also an extraordinarily suspenseful work of fiction that keeps you guessing – a who-done-it kind of murder mystery.

The only thing I was disappointed in was the inability of the author to render her characters in a more likable manner, which might have been just the point she was trying to make. Her main girl, Rachel, makes a slight transformation throughout the novel from emotionally unstable and crazy to slightly less crazy than before. But there are no heroes – everyone in the novel is depicted in a somewhat unflattering light. It may be my American optimism shining through (and the author is, in fact, British), but I was earning for more substance from her characters, which aren’t much more then deeply flawed.

Despite that detail, I couldn’t put the book down because of all the suspense, and to find out who committed the murder.

On a side note, it looks like a movie based on the book is coming out. I just watched the trailer, and I am actually pretty excited to see the movie. This may possibly be a movie that turns out better than the book – I will have to wait and see!

Currently, I am reading The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle, spiritualist guru, although I am keeping my eyes out for my next work of fiction.

On my want list:

The Best American Science and Nature Writing, 2015, edited by Rebecca Skloot

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, by Mary Beard

How many words does a translator translate per day?

I have read and heard from several different sources that a professional translator can translate 3,000–3,500 words per day, as an average figure.

However, this range can vary a lot. I think this number of words is very doable in translating from one Romance language to another (Spanish to Italian) or from a Germanic language to a Romance language (English to Spanish), but I imagine this number of words might not be possible when translating between two very different languages (i.e. Arabic to English and vice versa).

I am able to comfortably translate 3,500 words a day, or even more, when I am working with colloquial or informal text. However, when working with technical or academic translations, I average a little less at somewhere between 2,000–3,000 words per day. Technical translating takes more time due to formatting considerations and field-specific terminology. I might be able to translate 6,000 words or more a day, but then I will need an additional day to edit or review this text. So overall, my translated words per day balance out to around 2,000–3,000.

Usage of indefinite (a/an) and definite (the) articles

Articles (a/an/the) are used to describe nouns (so they are placed right before a noun).

Examples:        the boat, a mother, the bees, an antelope, the computer, an hour

Some of the most frequent corrections I make during editing involve articles and their usage. But, I promise that article usage is really easy once to understand once you get a little bit of practice. Spanish also has indefinite and definite articles, and their usage follows a similar pattern to English. However, I think where many English as a second language (ESL) learners get unnecessarily confused is with the, which may be used in slightly different ways in English.

But first things, first.

The indefinite articles are a/an, and these are used to talk about any nonspecific object/noun or to make general statements. In particular, they are used with countable, single nouns (we will get to plural, later).

A is used before consonants (s, n, t, etc.), while an is used before any word with a vowel sound or that starts with a vowel (a, e, i, o, u). Just remembers that consonants are basically any letter and its corresponding sound that are not vowels. In any case, pronunciation takes precedence – you’ll see this in the examples below.


an hour (h is silent in this case, forming a vowel sound, and so an is used)

a horse (h is pronounced in this case, forming a consonant sound, and so a is used)

an enemy (e/vowel sound)

a woman (w/consonant sound)

a purple penguin

an interesting movie

Now, what exactly makes something nonspecific and deserving of an indefinite article (a/an)?

Something/someone is nonspecific if you have never met them or seen them/it before, or if they are one of many. It isn’t something that you have immediately at hand and is removed from you, either physically or figuratively. Nonspecific also means that you aren’t referring to a specific individual, thing, or animal. This can be best illustrated with examples.


I saw a cat yesterday.

(While you certainly saw one, specific cat, it may be the first time you have seen this random cat walking down the street. Never met the cat before!)

I watched an elephant eat a monkey.

(Again, this is some crazy weirdo elephant that you have never seen before, you don’t know his name or who his owner is, you don’t know his current whereabouts or even where he comes from.)

A cup of coffee makes everything better.

(Here, you are speaking in general about coffee. You aren’t referring to a single, specific cup of coffee that you have in your possession at this very moment.)

The duty of a worker bee is to gather pollen.

(Again, this could be any worker bee. In general, all worker bees do this. You aren’t referring to a specific worker bee that you hold in your possession. If you hold her in your possession, please let her go!)

However, if we slightly modify the above examples and use PLURAL nouns instead of singular nouns, articles are no longer necessary.


I saw several cats yesterday on my street.

I watched elephants at the park.

Cups of coffee were sitting on the table.

Worker bees are hard at work.


Meanwhile, definite articles (the) are used to describe specific nouns. Specific nouns/things/people/animals may be definite in the sense that you know them or are familiar with them already. You are referring to a specific, known person or object, or perhaps a person or object or event that occurred at a specific place, date and time.


I saw the cat yesterday.

(This is a cat that you habitually see, perhaps it is the same cat always hanging out your neighborhood. You know exactly which cat you are talking about.)

I watched the elephant at the San Diego zoo eat a banana.

(This again, is a specific elephant. Not any old elephant, but the elephant in the picture that you took at the San Diego zoo.)

I watched an elephant at the San Diego zoo eat a banana.

(This is also correct, but the context changes slightly. You are referring to one of many elephants, and any one elephant in particular wasn’t very memorable.)

The cup of coffee is on the table.

(You are referring to a specific, single cup of coffee, that is physically at hand/at reach.)

The worker bee flew back to her hive, full of pollen.

(Again, here you are referring to a specific worker bee, not one of many.)

The best shoes are always found on sale.

(The often modifies superlatives: best, biggest, tallest, etc.)

Yesterday, I met the tallest man I had ever seen.

I purchased the most beautiful dress I could find.

So, perhaps an interesting perception from these examples is that the/an/a are also interchangeable in many cases, yet the meaning/significance of the sentence will change, ever so slightly.


In addition, abstract nouns (faith, love, hope, inspiration, hatred, etc.) often do not require articles (except in certain instances). This is different in Spanish and English, for example:

  1. El amor es difícil. (article required)


  1. Love is difficult. (no article required)

Here are some examples differentiating when an article would or wouldn’t be required:

  1. Hatred was nothing new to Joe. (hatred in general, Joe just happens to be a hateful person)


  1. The hatred Joe held for his distant relative never seemed to cease. (hatred for something specific/over a specific event or perhaps due to lifelong events).


Another interesting point that is particularly relevant to scientific or academic writing is that the is often repetitive and unnecessary. That’s right, the isn’t even always necessary, even in cases where it would be correct to use it. I believe this responds mostly to technical and scientific writing conventions. Let’s take the following example:

  1. The samples were taken from the rivers at point A and point B, during the dry and rainy seasons. (with articles)


  1. Samples were taken from rivers at point A and point B, during dry and rainy seasons. (without articles)

In general, I prefer the second statement, even though both are correct. Imagine that prior to the second sentence you had already talked about the rivers forming part of the sampling process. In this case, it is clear, even in the second sentence, that you are referring to specific rivers that are forming part of your study (and not rivers in general). This responds to a more direct, clear and succinct writing style.