Viejo Cara de Hacha

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I was in 8th grade, roughly 14 years old.  I lived in San Ysidro, a border town on the U.S./Mexican border.  We moved a lot, but the one thing that had stayed constant in my life was the school I attended.  So when my grandmother, Tita Carmen, finally received approval for low-income housing, we found ourselves in a little apartment in San Ysidro, about 13 miles away, and an hour-and-a-half on public transportation from my school. Every morning, I woke up before the morning star cast its arms across the sky and boarded the trolley no later than 4:45  in order to arrive to school before the bell rang at 7:30.

There were many men that rode the trolley during that time, mostly construction workers and day laborers or men who worked at the naval shipyard. There were also students who woke up earlier than me, who came from Tijuana and went to school on this side of the border, chasing the American dream. Most morning, my Tita walked me to the trolley station, but some morning, the cold made her bones swell up. I got lots of stares, a few cat calls and whistles here and there, but most of the time, I didn’t pay attention and focused on finishing my school work.  Until one day, an older man, whom I perceived to be around fifty or sixty years old, started to harass me.  He wouldn’t take his eyes off me. I was like a birthday gift that he couldn’t wait to unwrap.  His eyes glazed over with lustful craving, he’d lurk around the trolley station making sure he was always a few feet away from me.  He’d make noises like psst, psst to catch my attention, and when he’d catch my eye, he’d lick his lips or make some kind of nod with his head.

He started to creep me out enough that I told my Tita about him.  So the very next day, my grandmother accompanied me, but told me to stay a few feet in front of her and to pretend that we weren’t together.  As we anticipated, the old man was waiting for me and began his perverse behavior toward me.  When the trolley arrived, I got on as I always did, but I wasn’t sure where my Tita had gone.  I sat down and as soon as the doors closed, I heard a loud commotion a few seats behind me.  That’s when I saw my grandmother with her cane whacking the shit out of the old man! People all around watched as if frozen onto their seats.  At first I turned back around and pretended not to know what was happening.  I could hear my Tita screaming profanities in spanish. “Pinche viejo cara de Hacha!  Porque no se mete con viejas come yo?  O que, estoy muy vieja, por eso le gustan las muchachitas!  Pinche limon chupado! I was scared for my Tita, but more scared for the man.  He had his hands up in the air, trying to block every blow, screaming, “Ya, senora! No mas!”

A passenger stood up and tried to stop my grandmother, telling her to calm down because she could hyperventilate.  But he was no match for her fierce anger and strength.  So a couple more passengers pulled her off from the old man, and with commanding, sweet language helped her to have a seat, as she loudly justified why the old man deserved to get the shit beat out of him.

He got off at the next stop. So did my Tita.  I don’t know what else happened, and she never talked about it, except to ask me once in a while if I had seen him again.  But I never saw that man, and no one at that station or on the trolley, not so much as looked at me.  That day, my Tita taught me that all women have a roaring tiger inside.  And that it was okay to let him out.

 

*Viejo Cara de Hacha – old man with a face shaped like an ax

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. . .

The Tear of Death

Two days prior to my grandma, Tita, dying, she asked Carmen and I to give her a bath.  “Escojeme una blusa para ponerme,” she requested.  She wanted to get out of her pajamas and dress in her usually fashionable clothes.  Perhaps it made her feel more alive, or she wanted to feel like herself before the cancer had taken over.  When I pulled out the first blouse, she wrinkled her button nose and said, “No esa no.” Then I pulled out another blouse, and she wasn’t going for that one either.  I thought it was so like Tita to be lying sick in bed, but still be meticulous about what she wanted to wear.  Finally at about the fifth blouse, she nodded her head. Her blouses, like her spirit were bold and colorful, and I suspect that is how she wanted us to remember her.  That day was a beautiful moment for Tita, Carmen, and I.  Sus dos ninas, as she often called us, her two girls,  were bathing her the way she had bathed us as babies. Here we were coming full circle with her, giving her all the love, gentleness and compassion she had given us our whole lives.   I remember gently wiping down her body, imprinting every mole, every age spot, every vein in my memory, so that far after she was gone, I could still hold on to the image of her.  We gently passed the washcloth over her body, noticing the frailty in her arms and legs, once robustly vibrant like the wings of a hummingbird.  I vividly remember cleaning her vulva, trying to touch her gently, carefully.  Her puffiness and her elasticity were gone.  Lazy and unmoistened skin now held the residue of her memories.  Her genitalia had been part of her gender, but I don’t know if she had discovered it as part of her womanhood.  Tita was quiet, just following our movement with her eyes; watching us, perhaps imprinting every detail about us in her memory as well.  It was the ultimate honor and sign of respect that Carmen and I could pay her for all she represented in our lives.  It was also a moment my daughter and I would share for the rest of our lives, and perhaps a moment my daughter would remember when it comes time for her to come to terms with my death.  I was proud of the kind of woman Carmen was turning out to be, and knew that TIta had played such an essential role in that.

A  day later, Tita fell asleep and never woke up again. She had started to make gurgling sounds.  She wasn’t swallowing saliva anymore, which was also a sign of the process of death.  So the nurse handed me a liquid that I was to rub with a swab in between her gums and cheek.  I remember massaging her soft cheek from the outside to make sure she was absorbing the liquid which would dry up her saliva and prevent her from choking.  Her cheek felt just like it had all those times I grabbed her sweet cheeks and kissed her over and over again.  I would call her, “mi gordis chula.”  I didn’t want to be afraid of her or afraid of her death.  I wanted to embrace every part of her – even the part that was dying.  The muscles of her face had concaved and her nose and chin became very pointy. A week before, she had stopped wearing her dentures, they were too big for her mouth now.  As the body weakens less oxygen is available to the muscles, the life force weakens, and more effort is needed to complete everyday tasks.  About the same time she stopped asking for her glasses.

Prior to her passing, we had all taken turns visiting with her and saying our last goodbyes.  Whatever the process of death was for her, we wanted to give her as much peace as possible by letting her know how thankful we were for all that she had done for us, and that we would look after each other.  We also had the beautiful experience of having the Chaplin from San Diego Hospice come over and we all came together to pray, even the children.  The Chaplin read a few passages from the bible, as we humbly bowed our heads in the presence of my Tita.

Then each of us spoke to her standing in unity, holding our hands in a circle, in her honor.  My aunt promised she would continue to care for her husband (My Tita’s son) and told her that as long as she (my aunt) was alive, she would ensure my uncle was filled with love and joy.  I went next.  I assured her I would take everything she had taught me to live the kind of life she would have wanted me to live –  full of compassion, full of joy and laughter, full of hope and optimism.  I thanked her for all that she had provided for my daughter and me.  For raising both of us to be strong, independent women with an untamed and adventurous spirit.  I then assured her that I would always ensure Carmen’s well-being.  Each of us, within the harmony of our family circle, testified to her love and released her to go in peace.

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Two nights later, the whole family came together and drank tequila and sang old Mexican songs that filled the backyard with nostalgia .  I cuddled with Carmen and fell asleep with her in her bed.  Some time through the night, I remember awakening to my family’s drunken laughter as they warmly argued and told stories about Tita or some outrageous experience growing up with her.  Like the time that she took off her four-inch stiletto shoe, and hit a police officer on the head with the heel, making him bleed profusely, because he was harassing her little brother and abusing his power.  And how they ran down the street to quickly catch the bus, while my uncle, her little brother, was in a state of shock.  I could hear Jose Alfredo Jimenez playing in the background, one of my Tita’s favorite singers, and my uncle’s slurred singing drowned by everyone’s laughter.   Tita was in her room sleeping – she had been sleeping now, for more than 40 hours. I knew she wasn’t going to wake up anymore. My heart felt heavy as I thought of her in her bed, wondering if she could hear her family as they came together to grieve the inevitable.  Our home had been a revolving door during my Tita’s battle with cancer, each of us caring for her the way she had cared for us. That night, I think everyone knew her transition was near.  In Mexico, when people hold a wake for someone, it is an opportunity to celebrate their life, not to mourn it.  Wake’s are usually accompanied by tequila, mariachi, laughter and food to comfort the heart.  Tita used to say, “Las penas con pan son menos.”  So that night we held a wake for my Tita while she was still alive, and I wondered if it made her happy to hear her family come together, her two brothers and sister, her children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, nieces and nephews.  To feel the love and strength we had inherited form her.

I thought, when I heard them outside, of joining them, but I was consumed with an overwhelming feeling of emptiness and loss, like when your stomach feels like a bottomless pit, constricted by the pressure of agony, and all I wanted to do was hold my daughter, tightly – it was the only thing that made me feel safe.  My heart knew this would be Tita’s last night.

The next morning, the hospice nurse arrived early and was explaining ways in which we could help make Tita more comfortable.  Her temperature had been fluctuating from very cold to very hot, which was a sign that her body was beginning the process of death.  The blouse Tita had asked to wear a few days before was made of rayon material and the nurse said because of her extreme body temperature it would be more comfortable for Tita to be in a cotton dress.  The best way to get Tita out of her blouse was to cut it in half from the front.  Sacrilege, I know, as that had been the blouse she had carefully selected. Tia Mary, my great-aunt passed me a pair of scissors, and as I began to cut her blouse, her eyes opened with a rapid flickering of her eyelids.  Her pupils were grayish looking, almost opaque, and they rolled up until I could only see white.  When I looked at the nurse, she told me it was time.  A tear rolled from my Tita’s eyes.  The tear of death. Lacrima Mortis. A single tear down her cheek at the last moment of her death, or life. The nurse said it was a reflex action.  But research about this hasn’t been conclusive, mostly showing that the tear is shed by patients whose death is expected rather than sudden.  I think it was a tear for us, for the final and most profound act of letting go.  Later, we joked around and said she cried for her blouse, and that I would ultimately be responsible for that act of vandalism, LOL!

The day she passed, her upper teeth were sticking out over her bottom lip, so I rolled a towel and placed it under her chin, to support her jaw muscles and prevent her teeth from protruding so much.  Once my Tita passed, I left the room, I didn’t want the last memory of her to be her lifeless body.  That day we were allowed to keep Tita’s body all day at home.  Those who wanted to, were able to come and see her body one last time.  My brothers and my uncle ( her son) stayed with her, in her room, for a while.  I could hear the old Mexican songs playing in the background disguising their uncontrollable sobs.  In Mexico, men are supposed to be strong and stoic, especially at wakes and funerals, but not on this day.  On this day, I was the stoic one.  Keeping busy with the logistics and hosting the plethora of people that continued to stop by. The only tear I shed was the one that had rolled down my Tita’s cheek.

 

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.

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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.

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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.

Healing Love

Love is more than the manifestation of its energy through someone’s physical presence.  It is an energy that endures far after the person is gone.  It endures in the hearts of the people who were left to grieve, to miss, and to yearn. I am only beginning to understand the grandeur and magnitude of the love my grandmother felt for us.  While her love was transformational while she was alive,  in leu of her physical presence, her love feels even more potent now.  Somehow the memory of her and the values of love, forgiveness, and compassion she raised us with have become the compass for how we discern how to live our lives.

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Gardenia’s were our Tita Carmen’s favorite flower.

As we navigate through our pain and relationships, we can clearly feel her guidance and wisdom. Her legacy lives in the choices we make for our lives.  We keep her legacy alive when we choose to love unconditionally the way she loved us; when we choose to forgive even in the most difficult situations, and when we choose to have compassion and to understand someone beyond the limitations of our own experiences.  These are the things she equipped us with, so we could liberate ourselves from the pain that has been passed down through so many generations.

As I listen to my brother speak, I hear my grandmother’s wisdom in the way he is choosing to see life.  In holding on to my grandmother’s love, he has had to allow his heart to open.  That is the irony of it – in order to receive someone’s love fully, we must be open to vulnerability, and even the possibility of hurt.  Opening our hearts exposes us to confront the pain and the trauma that we so often run away from, but it also allows us to love more deeply and intensely.  

“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” – Anaïs Nin

Growing up we all suffered our fair share of neglect and abuse.  My brother was a victim of my uncle’s own experiences of neglect and abuse.  My brother has come to understand that my uncle was also once a little child and his innocence was devastated by the raw and untamed pain of the adults that were supposed to protect his innocence. At some point of his journey, my brother had an epiphany – our uncle did the best he could with what he held emotionally, and took care of us as best he knew how; that was a moment of grace allowed through the opening of his heart.  He talks about seeing a bigger picture, one that occupies a significance much more powerful than the lens of his individual pain and trauma.  He has begun to recognize the infinite whole and to see himself as part of a greater process.

My mother also suffered a tremendous amount of abuse and neglect.  For a long time, like many of us who suffer through inconceivable experiences, she felt as though in some way she held responsibility for what happened to her.  As if the violence had specifically chosen her. What she has come to recognize is that what happened to her could have happened to anyone, and it does happen to many children, without some particular design or criteria for who it happens to.  It wasn’t her fault.  It didn’t happen to her because she was less divine or less worthy than anyone else.  And she too realizes that my grandmother did the best she could to love her and protect her from the abuse.

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From left to right: Tita Carmen, David (my husband), David (my brother), Carmen (my daughter), Ofelia (my mother)

My uncle, for the first time, listened during the quiet of the night to my aunt speak to him about the need for him to reach out to God.  She told him it was time to stop the suffering, and only by opening his heart to God would he find peace.  She often prays to my Tita asking her for her guidance, for her love to heal the wounds that my uncle has hidden the way the fog hides the trees. For the first time my uncle allowed my aunt’s plea to move him enough that he gripped her hand tightly, and turned slightly away to allow a tear to escape from his left eye. The first petal has unfolded.

As for me, my grandmother’s love has guided me to find true love – I have fallen in love with myself for the first time in my life.  I think about how much she loved me and know that I must love myself no less than that.  I believe in myself enough to have the courage to follow my heart and my purpose.  She is there to help me navigate through uncertainty and moments of doubt.  Also, for the first time in my life, I have a deeper, more authentic relationship with my mother.  It is my grandmother’s love that nudges me, even challenges me, to open up to the possibilities of a new relationship with my mother.  For so long I focused on what my relationship with her wasn’t, prodding and intensifying the pain of what I wished could have been.  But in doing that, I was missing out on what could be.  I honor my grandmother’s legacy by loving my mother the way my grandmother loves her. I cannot receive my grandmother’s pure love if I allow animosity to live within my heart. And the greatest gift I can offer my grandmother, is to heal the relationship with my mother, so in turn my grandmother and my mother can heal theirs.

As I reflect back to my brother David’s and my journey, there were so many times we were confronted with situations that could have easily lead us into gang violence, alcoholism, or even drug addiction;  situations that would have caused us greater danger and trauma. Most of the time, however, thinking about the immense pain we would cause our Tita Carmen, we had enough self-awareness and grit to stay away from self-destructive experiences.

There are people that are raised with loving childhoods with very little wounds and traumas.  There are others that must confront very serious and painful experiences from a young age.  I don’t know why this happens, but it does. Maybe all those experiences help us to become more compassionate and giving toward others.  Maybe it helps us understand the universal experiences of humanity and our connectedness.  Whatever the case, one thing I do know for sure is love like the kind that our Tita Carmen nurtured us with can heal and transform the most damaged and beaten heart.

Rose

“What was said to the rose that made it open was said to me here in my chest.”       -Rumi                         

 

 In honor of our Mother, Grandmother, Great-Grandmother

May 26, 1926 – Nov. 24, 2010