My grandmother helped me raise my daughter – she was her other mother. The wonderful and beautiful woman that my daughter has become is in great part to the influence my grandmother had in her life. The following is a narrative I wrote from my daughter’s perspective.
I was raised by two moms. Mamá and Tita Carmen, my great-grandma. She helped raise Mamá, and when I was born, she helped to raise me.
When I was born, as Mamá held me in her arms, she asked my Tita, “Es mia? Es mi niña?” Is she mine? Is she my little girl? My Tita responded, “Si, es tuya.” Yes, she is yours. But as long as I can remember, my Tita would grab my arm or my leg and say, “Este cachito es mio.” This little piece is mine, and pretend she was eating a piece of me.
When Mamá was at work or attending college, my Tita took care of me. She would teach me about all kinds of different foods from México. I watched in wonder how she used ordinary ingredients to create extraordinary flavors. I didn’t know it then, but she was teaching me about my culture and about the importance of using food to pass on traditions and bring family together.
Tita loved making gorditas, a thick tortilla stuffed with black beans. It is a typical food from the state of Veracruz, Mexico where she was raised. She taught me how to make the ball of maza by rolling it in my hands, making a dimple in the center and stuffing it with beans, and finally flattening out the ball with my hands until it looked like a round golden sun. As she showed me how to pat and flatten the maza with my hands, she would sing, “Tortillita de manteca pa’ mamá que está contenta. Tortillita de maíz pa’ papá que está feliz,” Mexico’s equivalent to Patty-Cake. We would then fry them, and they would become puffed tortillas, like golden bubbles. I would become so excited when I saw them inflate like balloons, I would scream, “Se infló, sen infló!” I would pop the top of the bubble and my Tita would top my gordita with salsa, not so spicy for me, and queso fresco.
Tita was always cooking up something special for us. Every morning Tita would wake up by 5:00 to greet the tortilla sun, eager to prepare our breakfast. My alarm was usually the clinking and clanking of the pots, especially when she would make her delicious black bean burritos with salsa verde. She’d begin by mashing the beans she had previously made in her olla de barro, a special clay pot that had been seasoned from years of cooking beans. Then she’d warm up flour tortillas on the comal; tortillas so soft, like her plump cheeks when she kissed me good morning. A little shredded cheese and salsita verde, “y listo calisto,” love wrapped by tortillas awaited at the table. “Panza llena, corazón contento,” she would exclaim. Full stomach, happy heart! Through her cooking, Tita made sure we were always protected by her love.
At the end of the school day, even though Mamá would cook dinner in the evenings, Tita always prepared a little meal for me; it was her way of welcoming me home. One of my favorite meals was sopita de fideo, Mexican noodle soup. Sometimes she would put banana rounds in my soup, mmmmm. This was a trick abuelas, grandmas, would use to get the little ones to eat their soup. And when she would forget, I would remind her, “Tita, se te olvido hecharle platanito!” Tita, you forgot to add the banana. As soon as I’d get home from school, I would smell Tita’s cooking and see a placemat on the table with a spoon or a fork neatly wrapped in a napkin the way she always wrapped herself around me with her hugs. Before I could even put my backpack down, she would announce what she had cooked especially for me, “Te hice sopita mi niña, ven a comer.” I made you soup my little girl, come eat. That was one of the best parts of coming home.
Tita Carmen had many ways of showing her love to us, but the way she loved us the most was through the food she cooked. She believed that if you were hungry, you could never enjoy the beautiful things in life, and you definitely could not be hungry and laugh at the same time. She made each one of us feel special by cooking the foods that made our eyes twinkle like luciérnagas, fireflies, and our smiles wrap around our faces like brilliant streamers.
On special occasions, like on our birthdays, she made mole, a delicious potion of love. She would start early in the morning by setting out all the ingredients she would need for the big meal. Mole is made with over twenty different ingredients! It can take up to two days to make the paste from scratch. Even though she bought the mole paste, she always added her secret ingredients, or “su pellizco de amor,” her pinch of love. Mole is a special treat in Mexico and many families have their own varieties passed down for generations.
“Bate, Bate chocolate con arroz y con tomate. 1-2-3 Cho! 1-2-3 co! 1-2-3 la! 1-2-3 te! Chocolate, chocolate,” She would sing as she stirred the mole paste into a semi-sweet and spicy sauce of love. This took a while, as it had to have the perfect consistency. The house would smell of chocolate, chicken, tortillas, tomato, onion, garlic, beans, cilantro and spices like roasted chiles, sesame seeds, and clove. It was a celebration of food, family, and love. Tita was like mole, loving and comforting during discouraging times, strong and bold during hard times, and daring and sassy in the face of defeat.
With such a big family to feed and little time to cook, Tita figured out very quickly how to cook meals with little ingredients and lots of love. Besides raising her own children, she also helped raise five grandchildren, and me! She was a farm worker for fourteen years and that meant working long hours. Sometimes 14 hours a day, seven days a week under the scorching sun! She would get up at 4:00 o’clock in the morning to be in the fields by five. She spent a huge part of her day bent over or on her feet pulling weeds or harvesting fruits and vegetables like strawberries, grapes, tomatoes, cabbage, and onions.
Even though she would be too tired to cook after a long day’s work, and cooking for so many people could mean spending a lot of time in the kitchen on her feet no matter how simple the meal, she always figured out a way to cook a feast. “Todo sabe mejor, con un pellizco de amor.” “Everything tastes better with a pinch of love,” she would say.
Tita always cooked with her mandil; that was her superheroine cape with which she created magic in the kitchen. She could always make something out of nothing. Mamá told me that growing up, there were times when food was scarce. She remembers once when all there was, was a pack of hotdogs in the refrigerator and a bag of rice, and somehow Tita managed to cook a delicious meal. She chopped the hotdogs, sautéed them in onion and garlic, and cooked them in a tomato-chipotle sauce she made by blending tomatoes and a couple of chipotle chiles, and served them over rice. Mamá says those were the best hotdogs she ever tasted. Tita never worried about there not being enough food. Her philosophy was simple, “Le hechamos más agua a los frijoles.” We will just add more water to the beans. No matter who came around, she always had enough food to feed us all.