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.

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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.

Día de los Muertos

Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is a time  in which we commemorate and receive our loved ones from spirit world.  We welcome them back into the physical world and celebrate them and honor them so that they may know they live in our hearts and memories, still.  This tradition comes from the very complex and intricate collision of our ancestors, pre-Columbian cultures such as Mayan and Aztec, and Spanish invaders who forced Catholicism into the beliefs of the indigenous people. (Visit http://www.inside-mexico.com/featuredead.htm to learn more.)

The celebration of Día de los Muertos spans a three-day period.  Rather than focusing on death as a tragic and morose experience, it allows us to accept death as part of a cycle in our lives, a transition to our next stage of growth and evolvement.  By using humor to reflect on death and giving living characteristics to death, we are able to accept it as a mystical and transcendental process rather than a mysterious and ominous one.

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My Tita Carmen lived an arduous and heartbreaking life, of which she spent 14 years as a farm worker following the circuit throughout the state of California, from Bakersfield to Salinas.  The arthritis in her hands and hip would later be attributed to the back-breaking work she endured – from picking frozen grapes with her bare hands to bending down during 12 hour shifts to fill crates of strawberries, to the blistering work of cutting onion stalks.  I imagine that maybe the cancer that invaded her lungs could be attributed to the pesticides sprayed in the fields she worked.

And yet, Tita Carmen loved life and she loved her family.  She was and is the pillar of our family.  She raised her children, helped raise my brothers and I, and played an incredible role in raising my daughter, Carmen Elida Mason.  Though in her later years she endured four hip surgeries, she never allowed any of the hardships in her life to limit her free spirit.  She loved going on weekend trips to Las Vegas, and recently we found all types of player cards from the nearby casinos in her drawers.  In the last five years of her life she traveled to Cuba (twice), Hawaii, San Antonio, Texas, Veracruz, went on a cross-country trip through Mexico to Cancun with her siblings, embarked on a cruise, went on a weeklong camping trip to Big Sur, and endured a 7.2 earthquake while camping in San Felipe, the epicenter of the earthquake.

As her body lay in bed withering, she still had the ability to crack a joke, give a wink, and even share a smile.  Even through her pain and discomfort, she worried about whether we were eating.  Two days before she passed, she asked my daughter and me to bathe her and dress her – she didn’t want to wear a gown anymore.  Though she was fatigued and somnolent, she still had the wherewithal to let me know which blouses she didn’t like – I had to take out four different blouses before she pointed to the one she liked. Tita Carmen always dressed very youthfully and always made sure she was fashionable.  She never stopped dying her hair, and she made sure she got a pedicure and manicure once a month.  She was always bugging my mom or me about getting her eyebrows waxed.  I never saw any hair around her tattooed eyebrows, but she always insisted it was time for her waxing.

We are so afraid of dying, and yet we live in fear.  What I learned from my Tita was the more we fear life, the more we will fear death.  Life is about embracing everything, fully – the pain, the sadness, the joy, the excitement, and even death, for you can’t have one without the other.  There is a spiritual beauty that comes from it all.  Maybe what we are all most afraid of is the third death – when we stop being remembered and loved.

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My Dia de los Muertos Altar

I’ve never committed to Catholicism, but I find myself celebrating Dia de los Muertos as a tribute to those things that my grandmother had a deep connection to.  Continuing her costumes and traditions is my way of ensuring her legacy lives on.  I even find myself including Jesus and La Virgen de Guadalupe in my prayers and meditation because I feel such a deeper connection with my grandmother through those religious beliefs that anchored her to spirit and peace.

Cooking beans in my Tita's mandil

Cooking beans in my Tita’s mandil

I feel her spirit in everything I do and I know that she is not only a part of me, but she is with me supporting me through my journey, guiding my heart.  When I’m cooking black beans the way she taught me, I feel her presence.  Especially when I quietly inspect each bean to take out the ones that are too bruised or shriveled.  In those undisturbed moments, I can really sense her presence.  Or when I wash dishes in her mandil (Mexican Apron) and look out the window with nostalgia the way she used to.  I not only sense her, but I become a personification of her.  These are the ways in which I keep watering the roots that provide me the foundation and strength for how I live my life.

In Mexico, there is a belief that a person dies three times.  The first time is when their spirit transcends from their body.  The second time is when their physical body returns to mother earth.  And the final death is when the person stops existing in the memory of his or her loved ones.

Each of us becomes a bigger whole of the person that once existed.  In our DNA we carry the person’s suffering, their sacrifices, their strength, their wisdom, and their love.  And only when we recognize our DNA as  the manifestation of those spiritual links, do we allow for our ancestors to never experience the third death.  Most importantly, it is in our journey to a higher self that we honor our ancestors and heritage.

“There is ancestral energy intertwined into all our DNA. As such, even if any of our parents abandon (leave) us, we know we have inner elders to call upon.” Frank de Jesus Acosta

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The following is a literary calavera that I wrote for my Tita Carmen.  Though literary calaveras are imaginary humorous, satirical, or political obituaries written for people who are still alive, I thought I’d use this as a means to recall some of her funny idiosyncrasies and her passing.  It loses a lot of its humor and meaning when translated into English, so I am sharing it in Spanish.

Ay Calaquita Chingona
Te llevaste a mi Güera
Le ganaste a La Llorona
Y me dejaste el alma en pena
.
A mi Güerita comelona
Como le gustaba comer
Y no la tuvieras con hambre
Porque te empezaba a joder
.
Ir al casino le encantaba
Pa’ distraerse y jugar
A las maquinitas les echaba
Para poder ganar
.
Pero vino La Tiznada
y la suerte le arranco
La dejo con casi nada
así fue como marchito
.
Siempre andaba de pata de perro
Hasta que un día La Huesuda la paro
Le dijo “Oye Mi Jarocha”
Yo te llevo a bailar Danzón
.
Pero la Güera nada pendeja
A La Huesuda le contesto
“Oye mi Coatacha ya estoy muy vieja
No me vez que camino con bastón?”
.
Pero La Huesuda por vencida no se daba
Tarde o temprano la iba a convencer
A mi Güera como la rondaba
Y un día la invito a comer
.
Sabía que eso era su mas grande tentación
La sentó a la mesa y antojitos le llevo
Un platito de pozole, taquito de camarón,
Enchiladas de mole y pastelito de pilón
.
Como las penas con pan son menos
La Triste a la Güera le confeso
“Ya llego tu hora”
Pensando en su familia, se lamento
.
Entonces con dignidad, de la mesa
Mi Güerita se levanto
Se sacudió su mandil
Y a su Coatacha le contesto
.
“La vida te da sorpresas
Sorpresas te la vida”
.
En ese momento
La Güera comprendió
Que entra la vida y La Muerte
Existe un gran complot
.
Se entrego a La Muerte con la misma convicción
Que se entrego a la vida
Porque en las dos existe
Una hermosa harmonía
.
Y aunque su partida
Nos dejo un hueco en el corazón
A mi abuelita nadie la olvida
En el cielo, ahora baila Danzón!
 
My altar has pictures of loved ones whom I continue to commemorate.  And though I don’t have pictures of those who came before my Great-Grandmother Cristina, I call upon them as my elders and guides.  
 
Today (November 2) is the last day of a 3 day celebration, in which I was able to strengthen my roots and connection to my heritage, my loved ones, and death. 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 got 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 meditate. Yesterday was Dia de los Inocentes and today is Dia de los Muertos, and they are days intentionally dedicated to commemorate our loved ones, but beyond these days, we must create the intention to continue 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 our past, strengthening our roots, to flourish beautifully in the future.
 
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