The Alchemy of Your Presence

In my heart I carry
the memory of
when I first me you.

I asked if you were mine;
Tita pressed you closer
to my chest, assuring me.

But as I saw you grow,
I knew you were so
much bigger than my arms;
you were for the world.

The only place you could
fit would be in my heart.

I meet you there
in the silence and
whisper blessings
carried out to you by
Grandmother
Moon.

I touch the silhouette of
your essence –
search for peace and solace
as you confront the chaos
of a world parched for
benevolence.

You are here to be
greater than the imagination of man,
to stave off the conformity
that binds us to fear.

Your purpose was carved into
the consciousness of the trees
when Mother Earth
envisioned you as her daughter
and me as the guardian
who would reverently usher you
into this world.

The alchemy of your presence
is a daily awakening of love,
a prayer answered
for the restoration of the
melody of our humanity.

To contain you is to try to
hold water in the grip of my hand,
embrace eternity in a second,
or confine the sky.

The most harrowing and liberating
lesson I’ve had to learn is,
you were never mine.
You are a gift through which
I glimpse freedom.

Dance in boundless spaces,
let your hair whirl in eddies of wind.
Grow roots from your bare feet,
let them go so deep, they go to
creation; let them be so strong
they break chains. Sing your song,
serenade the goodness in you
and fall in love the way the blossom
has fallen in love with her nectar.

Happy Birthday mi chiquita. . .

Sabado Gigante with My Tita

sunsetbycristinamalo

Sometimes I fear that I might forget the stories that keep my grandma (Tita) alive.  It’s been a while since I’ve remembered new ones, though I lived a life-time of memories with her.  In every new experience I have without her, I often think about what that experience would be like if she were a part of it, if she were there, here.  She was such a beautiful light and only now that I have discovered my light, have I recognized and appreciated fully the power of her light, her heart, and her vibrancy.  With all the pain and suffering she endured, her light was never dimmed, and that’s what made her magical.

Sabado Gigante, a Saturday night variety show on Univison, which aired for fifty three years, finally came to an end a few weeks ago.  I had stopped watching the show, but it saddened me to know it would never air again, mainly because it had been part of a season lived with my Tita.

When I was in middle school, and Tita had finally gotten a stable apartment through a low-income housing program, up to then we had constantly moved from eviction notices to people’s living rooms to people’s garages, we would look forward to spending Saturday evenings watching Don Francisco.  Often that was the highlight to our week and it was one of the few consistent experiences in our lives.  It made us laugh, live in the moment and forget about the problems and burdens that felt so oppressive at times.  I remember sitting in the prettiest living room I had ever had.  It wasn’t fancy, but it was comfortable, and we had taken care to decorate it with the little money we had.

We had bought a sectional sofa upholstered with plaid burlap fabric, more in tune with late 1970’s décor, with help from my uncle who had co-signed for us to get credit from a furniture store that sold “gently used” furniture, though for most of the time that just meant there wasn’t any noticeable tears, stains, scratches, or dents.  We bought a few throw pillows that were on sale at a store called Pic-N-Save and had found a lamp and some decorative ceramic pieces for the coffee table at various garage- sales.  At sixty-years-old, It was the first apartment, home, Tita had had to her name and the first place she and I would live in for more than two years.  We both had finally found a home of our own.  This is what made sitting together watching Sabado Gigante so special.

Tita had purchased one of those old wooden-boxed TVs from a place called Ren-To-Own.  It was our very first version of a big screen, high definition television.  Every Saturday evening was a huge event for us; Don Francisco, the host of the show, brought some normalcy and much needed respite from the screams, the resentment, and the blaming that still consumed my family, then.  Tita would prepare cafecito by boiling milk and adding Nescafe instant coffee and sugar to it.  We’d each sit with our favorite pancito, sweet Mexican bread; un bisquet for her and a conchita for me.  Cuddled up with my Tita on that burlap sofa, laughing hysterically, pressed against her flabby, strong arms, I felt safe.

I’ve come to realize that it isn’t the memories that I have to hold onto, but it’s her love.  For it is that love that allowed me to persist, to survive, to become the beautiful being my Tita saw I was.

 

Tita Carmen   May 23, 1926 – November 24, 2010

Todo Sabe Mejor con un Pellizco de Amor/Everything Tastes Better with a Pinch of Love Part 2

PART 2

SICK

“Enfermo que come y mea, su Tita que se lo crea,” she would say when I was sick, and she’d make me caldito de pollo, Mexican chicken soup.   This was her version of medicine for almost any illness, but I suspect it was el pellizco de amor that lured the illnesses away. That, and some vaporub on my feet. She would rub vaporub on my feet as if she was rubbing a magic lantern, which would make them feel tingly and cold, and then she would slip socks over them.

Every time I became sick, she’d start concocting her delicious chicken soup. I could here her sing the song she always sang to me when I was a baby, “Negra, Negra concentida. Negra de mi vida. Quien te quiere a ti?” Then I would respond, “Tú, Tita. Tú me quieres a mi.” You, Tita. You love me. She always served my soup with a chicken drumstick, my favorite. And she was serious about making sure I ate every last bit of it. “Otro poquito,” she would say. A little bit more, until I finished it all.

At night before I’d got to bed, she would make her delicious té de canela, cinnamon tea.  “Para que se te caliente tu pechito,” she would say.  So your chest can warm up.  A stick of cinnamon, a little carnation evaporated milk, and the sweetness of brown sugar – it’s all I needed to fall asleep.

The sacrament of food

Artist: Peter Bolland

Tita Carmen was many things. She was a grandmother, a mother, a daughter, a lover, a fighter, a nurturer, and the main ingredient in our family. She was also an eater. As much as she loved to cook food for others, she also loved to eat. If you had food left over, she would gladly eat it! If you offered her food, she would take it in a heartbeat! Food was her way of connecting with family, friends, and life.

Mamá tells me that once when I was a baby, she caught Tita feeding me caldito de pescado, fish broth, through a straw, and when Mamá protested because I was too little to eat that kind of food. Tita simply told her, “A buen hambre, no hay mal pan.” For a good hunger there is no bad bread. Tita was not afraid of food. To her, it was a symbol of love and nurture.

Three things that she could never do without were, jalapeños, tortillas, and frijoles. She had to have at least one of those in every meal. Sometimes she ate the funniest things like spaghetti with tortillas. Or if we ordered take-out, she’d eat orange chicken and beans. And I think if she was craving it, she would have eaten cake and jalapeños.

That was Tita, adventurous and daring. Like the time she survived her first earthquake. She was in Mexico City and the earth shook like a giant maraca, a magnitude of 8.1! She said the buildings crumbled like, biscochitos, Mexican wedding cookies. Or the second time she was camping on the beach in San Felipe, the epicenter of a 7.2 magnitude earthquake where the sand shook like flour going through a sifter. But none of these scary incidents stopped Tita from living and exploring. In everything she did, she taught us to love life and food.

Artist: Minerva Torres Guzman

Artist: Minerva Torres Guzman

Maybe this is why it was so difficult to see Tita Carmen lose her appetite. I knew she was sick when she no longer wanted to eat.   Mamá or la familia would cook some of her favorite dishes to open up her appetite, but even swallowing became difficult for her. The dichos she once said to entice us to eat were not enough. “Tripa vacía, corazón sin alegría.” An empty gut is a heart without happiness,” we would joke with her to put her in lighter spirits, hoping she would eat a little more.

As she became more ill, she ate less and less. She would only eat sopita de fideo, banana, and atole. Her sister would sing to her, “Vamos a tomar atole, todos los que van pasando, que el atole está muy bueno y la atolera se está agriando.” When Tita had enough energy, she would sing along, the way she would sing it to me when she made it for breakfast and served it with pan dulce. She could only eat a few spoonfuls at a time, but she tried her best for us, her family.

I remember feeding her sopita de fideo and banana. Tita had always been the one to take care of us, and now we were taking care of her. I fed my Tita the way she fed me when I was a baby, gently scraping the banana with a spoon because she could no longer eat it in chunks. Even when she could no longer eat, she would ask us if we had eaten. No matter how sick she became, she never stopped loving us, never stopped caring for us.

cooking

Artis: Bones Nelson

Tita always said, “Las penas, con pan son buenas.” As long as there was food, and family to share it with, we would be able to overcome our sorrows and problems. That is the legacy she left us. On the days that missing her just feels too overwhelming, Mamá and I reconnect with her, her spirit, by cooking the food she cooked for us with so much love.

 

Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend.  Gratitude make sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.  -Melody Beattie

 

Today (and always), I am remembering that my survival is a result of the strength, sacrifices, and pure, divine grit of my ancestors. Their survival ensured my presence here, today. They dreamt me into existence because they believed in my capacity to continue the work of healing, liberating, and transforming. I owe them and honor them. They are the roots from which I am nourished, from which I grow, from which I become. May I, and those that come after me, never forget.

There are many ways to connect to our ancestors and our roots. One of my favorite ways is to cook the foods that the women in my family have cooked for generations. Wearing my Tita’s favorite mandil, every Dia de los Muertos, I work my way through the kitchen and feel her presence as I cook the mole in her honor, celebrating the way she taught me to cook it. This goes in my ofrenda as I prepare to welcome my ancestors back.

Though I always call upon my ancestors and know they are guiding me, this time of year allows me to see death as a beautiful process, a spiritual one, rather than eerie and gory. I get to cook the favorite dishes of my loved ones who have transcended, and welcome them to dinner, and speak their name through tears and laughter, and meditation. This is a time that is intentionally dedicated to commemorate my loved ones, but beyond these days, I continue to set intentions to connect with them through out the year. In a sense this is an opportunity to set new intentions and new ways to find deeper, meaningful connections to my past and my heritage, in order to flourish beautifully in the future.  It is a time of gratitude and appreciation.

little girl

 

Todo Sabe Mejor con un Pellizco de Amor/Everything Tastes Better with a Pinch of Love

PART 1

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.

IMG_1689

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.

Tortillera Dia De Los Muertos - By Pristine Cartera Turkus

Tortillera Dia De Los Muertos Print By Pristine Cartera Turkus

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.

beans

Prisarts Gallery

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.

maiz

Artist: Bones Nelson

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.

mole

Artist: Deb Hart

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.

baking

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.

The Little Boy Who Holds Magic

hummingbird boy

She saw in the little boy, Magic.

The kind of magic that reveals the secrets of life.

 

And she asked him,

What does the sun tell the flower

to make her open up?

 

And the boy told her,

The sun reflects her beauty

with his light, and she learns to

believe in herself.

 

She then asked,

How does the wind mold

the clouds into daydreams?

 

And he responded,

It whispers the dreams

people hold in their hearts.

 

Her curiosity grew.

How does the moon, even from so far away,

attract the ocean to her?

 

The boy explained,

At night, when the darkness weighs heavy

like a dream deferred,

she lifts the burden and soothes the fear.

 

She wanted to know more.

Why must the butterfly struggle

through the cocoon to fly?

 

The boy reminded her,

It is in the struggle that the butterfly

builds strength in her wings

affirming her determination to fulfill

her purpose.

 

How does the Evergreen find the courage

to survive the coldest winters and

parched summers?

 

He learns and grows wise. Understands the

parts of him he needs to strengthen and

transform.

 

Finally, she was enchanted with the boy’s

ability to attract hummingbirds, and had

to ask,

How do you get the hummingbirds

to trust you?

 

The greatest magic, and the most

noble answers you will find are held

in your heart. When it opens completely,

the hummingbird will come to

pollinate.

Catch the Children

Dandelion (Taraxacum) in the wind

Dandelion in the wind

I want to catch the children

when they fall.

Tell’em,

“You can melt in my arms, chiquito.

I’ll absorb your pain,

I’ll absorb it all.”

 

“You can let your arms and

legs dangle, or you can

roll into my chest.

I gotchu baby,

don’t you worry about

the rest.”

 

I will hold them like

roots hold on to soil,

with a grip so steadfast,

they will rise erect Redwoods

ready for the toil.

 

I will Catch the children

like little hands

catch shooting stars.

Hold them the way

faith clings on

to hope, unbarred.

 

Cradle them to an

ancestral lullaby,

“Duermete mi niña,

duermeteme ya,

yo te cuidare y

tus alas volaran.”

 

Stroke their forehead

like water brushing

river rock.

Gently smoothing

their cuts and scratches,

wiping off the muck.

 

I want to catch the children

when they fall.

Clean their wounds

of the debris that

keeps’em in

the gall.

 

Hold their vulnerability

like dandelion seeds.

When they’re ready,

release them to the breeze.

 

I want to catch the children

when they fall.

Quiet them enough,

to hear their

ancestors’ call:

 

“We gotchu baby,

been rooting for you

all along.

Our oak limbs

sustain you, majestically

strong.”

 

And when the children fall,

like the autumn leaf,

they will return to their roots

and feel the strength of

the tree.

When Forgiving Her Mother Meant Walking In Her Shoes – Part I

Seeing her mother dote over her husband in the hospital, who was constantly readmitted for chronic liver failure due to his years of drinking, Estrella couldn’t understand the kind of love her mother felt for him. She’d never felt that kind of love from her mother. She never saw her take that much care toward her. And it angered her. She wondered why this man was more deserving of that kind of love than she was. What was so special about him that wasn’t special about her? Why was he more significant than her? Those were questions she could not answer. All she could understand was the pain the little girl inside of her was feeling as she watched her mother’s adoration for her husband.

Estrella thought she had forgiven her mother. She thought she had overcome the sense of abandonment she had experienced growing up. In reality, she was still that wounded little girl sneaking behind the door to her mom’s room hoping to catch her mom alone to get a little bit of the attention she gave to her boyfriend. To be able to sit on her lap, maybe cuddle in bed for a few moments, or even a pat on the head. Watching her mother stand so attentively next to her husband, constantly probing to make sure he was comfortable, massaging his legs, repositioning his pillows, and caressing his face evoked a surge of pain she had buried very deeply within her. Her mother had never learned to love a man and love her simultaneously. She didn’t know how to open her heart to that much love, so instead, she focused her concentrated love to whom she felt would give her the most significance in life, her alcoholic husband.

Estrella couldn’t understand why feeling loved and accepted by a man was more important to a woman than being loved by her own daughter. Juvenile Hall was full of young ladies whose mothers had preferred their boyfriends over their daughters. Mothers who made excuses for their boyfriend’s screaming and beating. Mother’s who looked the other way in the middle of night when the innocent were devoured by the secrets of darkness. Why was the yearning for a man’s touch more powerful than the vulnerability and purity of a child?

She had seen so many women in her family relinquish their dreams for a few moments of deceptive romantic love. Her aunt Martha dedicated her whole life to loving a man in secret; a man who left her to marry another woman and create a whole new family. After he married, he looked for Martha again and she became “the other woman.” For over 35 years, she saw him in secret, settling for left over kisses and caresses a few days out of the year. His pictures were all over her house and she spoke of him as if he was the patriarch of the family. She created a fictional character and brought him to life through the script she created for her life.  She’d wait for his ever-illusive phone calls the way the desert anticipates the monsoon season, hoping the next phone call would summon her to his side.  Martha’s daughter grew up in the shadows of her mother’s fantasies, and like Estrella, became runner-up to the love her mother felt for a man.

Estrella struggled with the anger she felt toward her mother.  A mother herself, Estrella dedicated her life to loving and caring for her daughter, and couldn’t imagine how a man’s love could be more exceptional than the spiritual connection that existed between her and her daughter, and yet she understood the circumstances that led her mother to find shelter in the arm’s of men.  The same circumstances that led her mother’s mother to two very abusive marriages.  Her mom’s love for herself was so lacking, so depleted that only the intimate kisses of a man could fill some of that emptiness.

While the role of motherhood can be a very fulfilling aspect of a woman’s life, it’s also a very wearing and overwhelming experience.  It comes with many rewards, but many times to the sacrifice of other desires.  Estrella imagined that dirty diapers, crying children, piling bills, and a complete neglect to self-care did nothing for a woman who was already lacking so much self-love.  The less romanticized aspects of being a mother, like the loneliness that sets in in the middle of the night when a mother feels so incompetent, or the insecurity of a woman’s worth that creeps in in the morning as she looks at the dark circles beneath her eyes and the premature wrinkles that are starting to frame parts of her face, Estrella would learn, are dangerous side-effects when a woman can’t see her self worth.  That becomes exponentially true for single-mothers.

When a lonely woman feels a man’s hands through her hair, that masculine tenderness brings out a vulnerability in her that opens her up into a Calla Lily pulsing at the verge of spring. Estrella had been previewed to that type of sensuality. She had found a man who she could be herself around. In their moments of intimacy, his fingers whispered the truth of her body and glided over the topography of her landscapes. She had felt her hair sift through his fingers like the Saharan sand. She had opened herself to someone she could be unapologetically herself with; someone who had felt the softness of her belly in his hands, and ran them over her cambers, and slopes, and dips; someone who accepted the sacred lands she had to offer. Estrella had been lonely once, and understood the yearning for that kind of love, so the rationale of a woman choosing a man over her children was not so impossible for her to understand.

Estrella’s mother had six children by the time she had turned twenty-three. Each child represented a desperate attempt to fulfill the love she was supposed to have gotten from her mother, who also struggled with her own sense of worthiness. Ironically, with each child, the emptiness and loneliness grew, leaving her more desperate for the kind of love she came to desire from a man.

Estrella wanted to, needed to, forgive her mother.  Cognitively, she knew her mother was a victim of abandonment and neglect, and could see her mother’s own struggles to liberate herself from cycles of abuse, violence, and co-dependency.  But emotionally, Estrella did not know how to stop the pain and resentment she felt toward her mother.  The wounded little girl inside of her still wanted to feel significant enough, important enough, for her mother’s love.