A shout out to all the big sisters who have to at times step into their mothers shoes. If you’ve got one of those big sisters do not neglect to thank her for stepping in to help your mother. I’m a little sister, y Gracias a Dios that I had 3 big sisters who had my back, my big sis Marina, embraced her role and kept a good eye on me when my ama had her hands full, with 8 kids to raise, imaginate they were always bien llenas! Thanks big sis! A few years ago I wrote this simple poem in honor of my big sis Marina. Now that I’ve revisited it, I realize that it was pretty cheesy and not quite descriptive of our home life. Pero, the message remains, when your big sister puts on her mommas shoes, se agradecida!
My Mother’s Shoes
Three boys & three girls was a nice even number,
a quiver and more!
From sun up to sun down she worked,
raising 6 kids was no easy chore!
The work never stopped
as the needs piled on top.
Stacks of dishes and laundry miles high,
with a heavy sigh she washed & she dried
With a pair of preteens, and another of teens
She learned to spy, behind her head she had extra eyes
Sweeping and mopping? Impossible!
Her two toddler girls needed to play.
She asked God for strength and help
as he granted another day.
At night, with weary exhaustion
Mom took off her shoes
Morning came all too soon
with mouths to feed and no time to lose
She had no quiet place
Still she took a moment to rest,
but then came another test.
Her eyelids were heavy,
she yearned for some sleep.
Her lids closed for a moment
but she caught her breath
She felt the stirring within.
She new what this meant,
she was expecting again,
And when the new baby came,
she felt the stirring again!
Now her brood was complete;
God gave her eight children to raise.
At night, more weary than ever,
She would take off her shoes
She’d whisper a prayer for patience
And the strength God renews
She was created to nurture,
to give all that she had,
But she needed a helper
who could nurture
When my mothers hands were too full
and I cried with my need
My Big Sister came, she was ready to give
and ready to watch over me
She wasn’t my mom!
I wanted my mom!
Big Sister shushed me
It was then that I knew
she was wearing my mommas’ shoes!
Fast forward to my own mothering experience, I only had 4 kids and they kept me busy, I can’t imagine my amas experience. Pero, gracias a Dios for Emery and Thomas’ big sister! My daughter Daniella stepped into my shoes so easily, at least she made it seem smooth. A little confession right here is appropriate. Bien Concha, enjoying my motherhood, boasting that my last two babies were so easy at night, they slept through the night! Pero un dia, Daniella set the record straight, hijole! When the baby woke up and I didn’t, she would pat him back to sleep while I kept sleeping. Que verguenza, what a blow to my mothering ego!
There’s much more mothering practice that she experienced through her little brothers, but confessing this was too much for me already! Today, Daniella is an amazing mother: She uses all the talent God gave her and sometimes that strong latina woman comes out in her and she manages very well.
Sunday is mothers day, bless your ama and if you have a big sis, thank her for every time she stepped into your mothers shoes.
I am thankful for the short 22 years I had with my Ama. She gave a lot for her family, and it’s only in hindsight that I can see the trail she left behind so that I could follow it to find my way. Isn’t it always the case that afterwards we see better? She was a daughter, sister, friend, wife, in-law, mother and grandmother. Looking back makes you see and regret what you missed, it makes me sorry for all the things I didn’t do to make her life easier. I’ve definitely regretted the attitudes of ungratefulness and the sassy disrespect. Ahora si, I understand un poquito what she must have felt with the weight of her decisions. If only I could tell her all the decisions, sacrifices and labors I’m grateful for. I am praying and believing in God for the opportunity to say all this to my Ama in person one day. Cómo dicen por hay, “Practice makes perfect” I’ll start now:
10 Reasons I’m Thankful For My Mother
For coming to El Norte with my apa. You left so much behind. You left your ama, not knowing when you would see her again. You followed your heart with your ama’s blessing and big brother backing. I remember those days when you spoke about your big brother El Chino. The one who stepped in when your father died. He protected and guided you and took care of you. I remember the respect and grateful heart you held for him and I remember your yearning to be near him again.
For coming to America, my fathers dream. You gave up much of your culture and comfort to follow him, you gave him all your love and brought it into a new home for him and your growing family.
For insisting on “En esta casa se habla espanol” I’ve managed to retain my Spanish although some might call it my spanglish.
For raising us with some tough boundaries. Thank you for not letting us bully or manipulate you into compromising our safety and our future.
For persevering in your marriage. When things got difficult and you wanted to throw in the towel, you didn’t. I am eternally grateful for your willingness to establish la familia Zepeda.
For opening your heart and home to your in-law children. Even though you and Ben didn’t speak the same language, your hospitality communicated your acceptance. Your kindness took away my fears.
For keeping us connected to our extended family. I’ve learned so much about you through them.
For believing in me. You always saw good things from me. Yo se queI was a selfish little teenage brat and an insecure young adult but you thought differently of me. Mom, I can’t wait for you to meet my kids- they are great! You would be an abuela clueca with all your beautiful grandchildren and great grandchildren.
For pointing us to the God of the Universe. Teaching us that our hope rested in the author of our lives. Gracias, that you embraced the things I learned in my born again experience and you rest in peace today. No me canso, I wait patiently (most of the time) for that blessed hope when I see you again ama.
Mil Gracias Ama (A Thousand Thanks Ama)
Questions for Ama:
I have some snippets of stories told about my amas life, like puzzle pieces. But the puzzle is incomplete. I have so many questions I’d ask her if she were with me today. Those details that mostly us girls are interested in. Ama? What was your wedding ceremony like? Was there a celebration on such a grand day? Ama? What did you feel like the day you knew you were having your first baby? Did you ever think you’d be away from your mother? What did you think when you found out you were having your 9th baby? The questions multiply as I experience things she experienced too, the latina in me creates novelas with such climatic endings.
Although I wish I would have had more time to forge an adult relationship with her, I am so grateful for the years and memories I do have. She lived her life in love with her family and it showed by all she gave up. This coming week is her birthday and I wanted to remember her again. Ya sabes, birthdays are for celebrating. Imaginate, God took some time to form and shape us and it’s nice to appreciate Him for that on our birthdays. I’m grateful He shaped my Ama and that He chose her to be my mother to shape me.
Halloween always creeps up on me and it has always been a sticky tricky day for me. When I was a little girl in Imperial Valley, I had to do what I could to make it fun. Then as an adult I tried to ignore the day as much as possible, like my ama tried. Imposible! kids don’t let you ignore it. One of the biggest candy hoarding days of the year, parents need to recognize, verdad que si?
As a little girl, it was the one holiday that I rallied for as far as dressing up. Don’t get me wrong, I was not trying to be a princess or any silly girly character. But the unwritten and unspoken rule was that to trick or treat you had to be in costume. I would start working on my mom and sisters a few days ahead. I needed three things to make my day a success. Primero, I needed permission and a chaperone or partner to go out and knock on doors for candy. Luego, I needed money for the yearly carnival and finally, I needed a costume. Halloween was up to me, my ama didn’t highlight the day in any way shape or form. She kind of dreaded the day, because all the kids in the barrio knew she had her tiendita, and they expected some great candy from her store. Halloween almost always meant bankruptcy for her negocio.
The week before Halloween the kids were talking about what they were gonna dress up as, or what costumes their mom had bought them. I was always embarrassed that I wasn’t getting a cool costume so every year I said I wasn’t dressing up. Every year I said it was dumb and every year I didn’t mean it. Y cada ano I’d give into the pull of trick or treating.
Now that I think about it, my ama always enjoyed my silly chicanadas that I called costumes. I would jimmy rig a costume mostly out of my apas clothes and get into my sister’s makeup. Que one year a baby, another year a hobo, a fat man, a farmer. Basically the same idea always with a different name.
12 Year Old Transition
In small towns I think growing up and getting to that serious behavior that a 12 year old should have, takes a little longer. I was not serious about growing up and morphing into a teenager. I didn’t care much about being cool, I couldn’t start thinking of makeup, gracias a Dios! Wearing Makeup was taboo for us younger girls.Silly boys weren’t noticing me yet. Pero, I was real serious about getting lots of candy.
One particular year, I had secured permission and a partner to trick or treat, my sister Patty was gonna keep an eye on me. I always had to work extra hard on begging and pleading with Patty. She hated taking care of me, she was already in that cool teenage age and walking clear across town to trick or treat was not cool! I promised to give her a lot of candy and quien sabe what else I promised, but in the end I prevailed upon her.
All I had left to create was my costume for my night of fun and candy. I had the same old options so I think I decided on a combo costume of an old fat hobo man, muy original verdad? Being giddy with excitement I decided to go extra on the fat and stuffed my pants and shirt, bien exagerada, I could barely move.I was ready, with my big bag on hand, we left. The getting to the carnival part is a fuzzy memory, I’m guessing that somebody gave us a ride there because I can’t imagine Patty agreeing to all that work. Anyway, we were at the carnival for a short time since my pocket book was very light. It didn’t matter to me anyway, I was anxious to trick or treat a lot of kids already all over town, I didn’t want to miss out.
To maximize on trick or treating candy you have to have a lot of energy and a good plan. Patty wasn’t interested in the plan I had mapped out in my head. She gave me one option. Leaving the school grounds and walking past the middle school and the elementary school, all connected, then turning left would land me on the West side. Going further, past the Circle K then turning right going several blocks further got me to the Rich side of town. Guess what Patty was pushing for? She was getting crabby and I was getting anxious, especially since I was pretty slow with my fat man costume. The padding kept creeping down my leg, almost tripping me. I kept having to re-stuff myself and hold on to my backside to keep the pillow from falling out.
But God had mercy on me and we got to several houses that gave lots of candy before she headed us toward home. I milked it as much as I could knocking on doors as we made our way home. I was whiny and grunting and she was so mad that I had tricked her into doing this, we were both pretty tired by the time we reached the railroad tracks. Suddenly our senses were very alert and we had to put off our tired feelings, and watch out for danger, of the El Cucuy kind. We were on Mainstreet, it was way too dark to take the shortcut. Huge semi trucks occasionally passed by and we so appreciated the bright lights those trucks flashed, we stayed dangerously close to the pavement, hugging it. I, the “fat man” was behind Patty and every time I heard crackling, or scraping sounds, I was sure El Cucuy was behind me, I couldn’t turn around, it would be my demise, so I quietly whined, hating my sissy lala emotions. I’m not the hugging type, but that night I was ready to pounce on my sister for support. Talk about a Halloween nightmare on Mainstreet, hijole! Crossing the tracks and walking that long dark road just before we saw the houses of the barrio was maybe a 10 minute walk but my stuffing and the darkness made it the longest walk ever. Suddenly, I could appreciate why my ama banned us from being out at night. Halloween was one of the few exempted days and I wondered why that day was ok? We walked fast as I was trying to keep my belly intact.
It wasn’t too late in the night, but those railroad tracks and the empty lots made it the perfect scene in a scary movie, I had imagined it all in those few minutes. Such relief flooded us when we entered the safety of our barrio. Kids were still out and about and Patty loosened up. I took advantage and knocked on a couple more doors in my hood. All was well that Halloween. Pero que susto!
We got home exhausted. I tossed my hefty candy bag onto the table, happy with my loot. Oh how sweet home was. I plopped myself down on the chair in the dining room, I was coming undone. So as I was pulling the stuffing out of me my ama was laughing at the image I created.
Ama: Como te fue?
Me: Ama, fue el día más feliz de mi vida!
My mother let out a gleeful carcajada.. Her way of laughing started from the bottom of her belly and rolled out past her mouth. I loved to make her laugh, it was always so contagious. She had quite a laugh out loud moment.
Counting all my worldly experiences of all my 12 years of living, I had declared, this had been the happiest day of my entire existence. I had already forgotten the pain in the butt it had been to walk. El Cucuy didn’t come for me, the tracks and all my fears were forgotten.
I was pretty proud of myself whenever she told the story of my “happiest day of my life”. I’m so happy to have that treasure in my vault. The contagious laughter has carried on through her grandson Jonathan, everytime he has that LOL gut roaring laughter I remember my feisty ama.
This will be another post on birthdays, inspired by a birthday celebration this week. That first day of your new year should be highlighted with hopeful wishes and if possible splashed with happy events. I’ve got quite a few birthday celebrations and shout outs for October on my calendar and of course, mi cumpleanos is this month too. I always love the happy birthdays I receive all day long. My dear friend’s daughter will be 15. Wow! Los años vuelvan, they pass so fast you miss the details. That whole birth story is a miracle in itself! Pero, I’ll leave it for another post. I do remember when she called to tell me she was in labor. After an agonizing attempt at labor, she had to have a C-section, then her little girl was placed into her arms. Before we knew it, we were talking about her fifteenth birthday! Quince anos! hijole. Of course, quince, triggers images of quinceañera traditions.
For those readers who do not know what a quinceanera is, I’ll give you the Rosie understanding. Basically, it’s fiesta that embarks a 15 year old latina to womanhood; a rite of passage. It was predominantly a Mexican tradition that spread across Latin America. Although it is very likely that mesoamerica culture influenced these rites, the arrival of the Spaniards brought in the Catholic tradition. This milestone unites family far and wide and for the 15 year old chica who hasn’t experienced much grownup socializing, she is presented to society and will lead the way on her big day. In my case, as I flashback to my big day, I was dragging my feet.
A Quinceañera looks a lot like a wedding day celebration, when Ben saw my quince album he was shocked to see me looking like a bride. It dawned on me that it is the precursor to a young woman’s wedding day. Creanme! It truly does provide that intense level of stress in preparations.
How far a family takes a Quince will depend probably on the pocketbook and the Joneses.
Here’s a minimal list (don’t read that as one word, because Quinceañeras are probably not for minimalists) of some of the traditions seen in a Quinceañeras.
A gown for la quinceañera. (I couldn’t, wouldn’t wear a gown, that was my sisters and mothers first battle. My heart was in the volleyball, basketball courts and in the baseball field, there was no place for a dress in my life, much less a gown! My dress had to be simple, easy to walk in, easy breath in. If it was possible to be comfortable in a dress, I had to have that dress! It wasn’t like I was getting married anytime soon, acuerdense, in my book, marriage was for the blind)
A Tiara and bouquet and all the nice accessories. (Thankfully I was only required to wear a flower in my hair. I did have to hold on to a bouquet, it was so awkward staring into my bouquet during pictures trying to look soft, serene and grown up.)
You need a church for the mass. This is the formal or serious portion of the rite of passage. A ceremony that would involve prayers of gratitude and commitment to living a moral life. (In my small town there was only one catholic church, so there was no searching needed just booking a date, this might have been the least stressful portion of preparing)
You must obtain a hall for the fiesta following the mass for the rest of the celebration.
A court traditionally requires 14 damas and their chambelanes, this could be equivalent to bridesmaids and groomsmen in a wedding. The court is dressed elegantly to accent the quinceañera in her procession. (Do you know how difficult it is to find friends to fill these positions? Thank God, I wore my hair short in those days because I would have pulled it all out just choosing a style of dress, forget about the color. Then, after all that drama, the parents decided to pull their kid out, the expense on their formal dresses was too much. I ran around asking good friends, then friends, then acquaintances. It got so desperate that I was ready to ask strangers to help me. Honestly, in the end, ya ni se, I don’t know how many kids actually accompanied me that day)
You need a valtz, this is one of those Spanglish words that evolve from simple mispronunciation. The word is waltz. (Things I remember about the valtz is just trying to coordinate practices, not easy when everyone plays sports and practices after school. Then the other thing is the dread of dancing, last time I had participated in a formal choreographed dance was my 4th grade square dance!)
A Madrina y Padrino are called upon. These godparents are chosen from the close friends or family that are invested in your family. They help with the hardwork and with some costs. (In my case, my big brother and his wife were the designated godparents. It’s tricky because, how weird is it to call your own brother and sister-inlaw nino o nina? How about addressing them by usted, when they had been tu all my life.)
The dinner: These meals can get really elaborate. Proper place settings with the charger, then the plate and each side has salad and dinner fork, knife and spoon, topped with a nice linen napkin. (For the Zepedas, bring on the birria,with no stiff formalities, just good meat con arroz y frijoles and of course tortillas)
You must have cake. Like everything else in this celebration, Cakes for Quinceneras are wonderful. (By the end of mi Quincenera I was ready to have my piece of cake and eat it.)
You must be a grateful quincenera! Asi es, everybody is working hard for your special day (putting on a gratitude attitude would have been a huge blessing for my ama)
My limited list is based on my experience. When I look at my photo album, I realize it was a simple 1980s presentation. Pero, not so easy to do for my hardworking parents. I wish I would have had a better attitude about my quinceanera. My older sisters were into it, happy to help our ama while I was a sulky 14 year old, niña chiquiada! I was a spoiled little girl, not willing to wear that beautiful big gown, they had dreamed of wearing. Hijole! Thank God they got to wear their beautiful big white wedding gowns.
I started this post by boasting about how much I love my birthday celebrations and mostly I have enjoyed all the attention. I do regret not being more grateful for all the investment and effort my parents gave to my birthday party at 15 years old. Here’s a resolution. I’ll keep my eyes and heart on Jesus and when I get to heaven and see my parents and sisters I’ll tell them thank you and I might even hug them 😊 (I’m one of those rare Latinas that is awkward about hugging). Meanwhile I’ll ask my sis who is here and tangible, to accept my love and gratitude. She always celebrates my birthdays and now after 40 years I can see clearly and appreciate the labor of love.
What memory stands out in your quinceañera? Or what new traditions exist for today’s quinceañera?
Maybe this post should be titled “How Not To Plan Your Wedding.” As Jane Eyre cried “Gentle reader, may you never feel what I felt then” It was an excruciatingly, emotional, anxiety filled season. Que exagerada verdad? Little did I know that that was easy-peasy, compared to the weddings out there in the big wide world beyond my life. After assisting a daughter, and a daughter in law in their preparations, I can see that I barely scratched the surface of all the complex wedding planning details that are out there.
The days after I was engaged to my cold blooded Englishman I didn’t even think about the wedding, I thought about my flaco, he was gone on Westpac and I was sad and lonely, pobrecita noviecita. I wasn’t a child bride, but I certainly felt like a little girl who had lost her favorite teddy bear. I stared at my engagement ring and wondered if I really would be married to Benjamin Walter one day. In front of the mirror I sounded out what would be my married name, Rosalba Greene. That sounded weird. I think it was supposed to be Rosalba Zepeda Greene. Hmmm? Would I ever get used to this new name?
My days were busy with work and church, still no planning. Some of the families at church might have been feeling sorry for me because I was getting many dinner invites and I was truly appreciating my friends. Soon I was getting letters from mi fiancé and we were counting down the days for his return. Talking about married life, wondering what our kids would look like, but no mention of a wedding day. Three months into engagement, I was feeling like I could make it, especially since I was truly enjoying all that home cooking, so much so that I was putting on weight.
Wake Up Call
My roommate, who was my bestie and my appointed maid of honor, came home from a long trip overseas. She took one look at me and said something about my weight. She was shocked and I was…. Hijole! I was sad? Mad? Definitely no longer glad to see her! Gorda?! Is that what she called me? Had I really gained that much weight? Unbeknownst to me, I had gained 25lbs in 4 months. Imaginate!!
The drive home from L.A. airport was not a happy one, I was sullen and she was tired and she had more to ask.
How’s your wedding planning going? Que? Wedding Planning? That opened up the floodgates that would remain open probably until my wedding day. I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know what I wanted. Are you kidding?! It took 2 years to sort out my emotions and heart about marrying my gringo, how was I supposed to know what color scheme my wedding should have? The dress is supposed to be white right? We would have enough color variety in our lives in marriage! For the next 2 hours she drilled me about the wedding date, my wedding dress, our invitations, the ceremony and reception. What kind of bouquet would I have? What about her dress? What did I want her to wear? Dios mio, what was going on? I had to choose a dress for her? After the barrage of questions, like a true maid of honor she walked me through a simple plan, bueno, it was supposed to be simple.
The race was on now. The first real ceremony and reception I would ever plan and I discovered that planning a beautiful reception of any kind wasn’t my calling. Thankfully, marriage is about life after the wedding (porque, I can cook a delicious meal for a beautiful reception).. I figured out my wedding date. That was a tricky because we wanted to be married as soon as he got off the boat from WestPac in July, but we had to settle for a day in September.
I had my dress, and after a tedious time of choosing paper and envelopes my invitations were printed in both Spanish and English. I breathed a bit easier when they were all mailed out. My color scheme was settled (colors I don’t even like, I don’t know why I chose them?) Someone helped me with a plan for my flower arrangements and bouquet. My wedding cake was ordered. Ben bought his suit overseas and his wedding ring. Those are the big parts, and that pretty much sums up wedding planning.
Vamos , Let’s go to the week before the wedding day. My Benjamin had been home over a month, we hadn’t rested, he was getting fidgety, his mom and brothers were coming to town just before the weekend, just the thought of meeting my future in-laws for the first time made my stomach churn. Did I mention that the stress of planning my muy sencilla wedding had knocked off those 25 lbs.? That was a Romans 8:28 situation for me! Asi es, I was my skinny size. That Sunday the week before my life changed and I would become Mrs. Benjamin Greene, I was tired and anxious but I was looking forward to my life with Ben.
Stop The Wedding
Then I got the call. Mi ama, she was in the hospital, she had had a stroke. We didn’t know much else, so I packed my bag and waited for my sis Marina to pick me up. This would be the beginning of a long relationship with Pioneers Memorial Hospital in Brawley Ca.
It was a quick 2 1/2 hour drive, but they were also the longest 2 1/2 hours of my young life. I had never seen what a stroke could do. My family was in the waiting room. My ama was stable, but resting, I could tell she was different.
The next couple of days were fuzzy and confusing. I had to be at work and what about my wedding? Marina and I drove back and forth a couple of times, so tired and blurry eyed, and in those times I barely saw Ben, we were both feeling the weight of this. Then I got a call from the person taking care of my wedding flowers. She said the whole deal was off, she said I wouldn’t be getting flowers from that vendor. There would be no flowers for my wedding. Would there be a wedding? I cried, I didn’t know what to do. I had to talk to Ben.
I calmed down and was alone with both my parents in that hospital room. My ama’s expressions were marred by the stroke. She knew she wouldn’t be at my wedding and she was sad, I didn’t want her to miss my wedding. It was hard to see her like this, I told her I would postpone it until she was better. She wasn’t speaking, she really couldn’t. My dad spoke for them. They had talked after the doctor had talked to them. Mom would be at least another week in the hospital before they could transfer her. They didn’t know how long her recovery would be. They didn’t know where she would go for recovery.I think we both remembered my graduation day, we both cried. Ama had missed my graduation day, she had been in the hospital then too. I still didn’t know what to do. As my mother held my hand, Dad explained that I must go on with the plans for my wedding, he talked about them being old and me starting my life. He assured me that he would be at my wedding for both of them. I am a person of many words but I couldn’t speak the words I had within. Of course I wanted dad there, but how does a girl get married knowing her mother wouldn’t wear the pretty dress she bought for the wedding. No flowers and no mama on my wedding day. There is a chasm of forgotten feelings, I truly don’t recall how I moved forward.
Ben was much relieved to know that the wedding was still set for September 25. Y asi paso, we were married that day.
I was able to order a bouquet, guess where? A big chain grocery store! Besides not knowing what I was doing I was in a daze on so many different levels. The grocery store flower shop had flowers in my color scheme peach and teal, (ya se, peach and teal??? maybe it was popular in the 80s?) and the florist seemed excited to put together a bouquet for such an important occasion.
So I married my Benjamin and shared a meal with our guests. Then we rushed to the hospital, like I had done on my graduation day and got on the elevator with my esposo y apa. There was ama all by herself on that hospital bed and her face lit up when she saw us come in, the stroke couldn’t hide her joy. I leaned on her as she laid there. My beautiful ama welcomed my Benjamin into her life. We both leaned into her as the nurse took our picture. I wish I knew what my mother was thinking that day, maybe like a mother does she felt anxious for my happiness, no se, she couldn’t really speak. I was different again, now I was a married woman. De veras? A married woman!
When we got back from our honeymoon, I went straight to visit mom at her rehab here in San Diego. Now I would be able to be with mom everyday and help as much as possible in her recovery. Her stroke recovery was difficult for her, she never quite fully recovered, she went home to be with Jesus a few months after she went back home with my apa.
I cried again as I remembered these days, I cried harder when I couldn’t find my pictures with my ama. I felt the loss all over again and I have to tell myself just now that I’ll see her again one day in my wedding dress. My treasures weren’t completely lost, my Benjamin uncovered my most important picture after some digging and praying, “Oh God, help my wife find this picture, in Jesus name”.
With 33 years behind us we have many many pictures.
Today marks 32 years that me and my siblings have walked this earth without our ama. Que dramatica! Everytime a memorial day comes out of the closet I think I must be sad and well, and I am. That’s when I have to choose not to be a chillona and I must make a conscious choice to turn my sadness into something better. I’m gonna text my sis in a while and remember with her our ama.
I miss her, she is a feisty latina woman! She had to be, with 4 strapping boys that had plans of their own and 4 feisty latina daughters! If her command and tone didn’t get the job done, she pulled out her secret weapon: “Vas a ver! Cuando venga tu Padre” Yikes! We never wanted my apa to get involved. Just writing this makes me sit up straight.
In her house the rule was “Aqui van hablar espanol” and we did… our version, el Spanglish.
She wanted us well versed in spanish for when we went to visit la familia en Guadalajara. Ama wanted to prove that we were indeed Mexicanos to the bone. In our opinion, we were the best spanish speakers in the barrio, but when we were in the colonias of Guadalajara…and the primos laughed at our spanish, we showed them. We loosened our tongue into english mode, accent and all, they didn’t know any better. Hay si, muy muy is what they judged us with. We weren’t trying to seem songrones, stuck up, acting like we were better. But hey! Who wants to be laughed at? For our ama we stayed in spanish mode as needed and I’m glad I did, because today I’m muybilingue, by my own assessment of course.
My ama worried that we’d lose our spanish and Mexican but because of her we didn’t even here in America. She was happy to know that even with my gringo I wouldn’t take off my Mexican.
Hijole! I do regret not appreciating her enough. But, I am comforted to know that as long as I “stay saved” Christianese for stay connected to Jesus, allowing him to cover me over my Mexican American Heritage I’ll see her again and I’ll talk to her in spanish and maybe in Gods heavenly language.
Feliz Dia de las Madres! I hope all you moms enjoy a beautiful day, or two. And for all you children, hear some nagging unsolicited advice from an ama of 31 years. If you’re able, give your momma that special attention, you’ll make her day grand. I tell you, life is but a vapor, appears for a little time. For you young amas, watch out for those stinking attitudes.
Don’t Be Too Busy
I was a busy daughter, probably since the moment I started walking and because of that my “me and mi ama” moments were few and short. I’m glad I have them though. I’m sitting here wondering, should I tell them about her ways with us? Or should I share with them the quick episodes? Maybe I’ll do both.
My Ama Celebrated Us
With 8 kids to raise, a house to keep up, mom didn’t have time for all those other things, like birthday parties or honor roll or sports banquets. Besides that, she didn’t speak English or Spanglish and she didn’t drive.
For our birthdays ama would cook our favorite dish and make sure we got our birthday wishes.
When I got to the rough rocky stage of adolescence, I wore that stinky face attitude that could appreciate nothing! And I was always right.
When I was turning thirteen, I got it in my head that I should have a birthday party because that’s what was supposed to happen for a birthday to be legit. Honestly, I’m sure I didn’t necessarily ask for a party, the plan just started coming together. How hard could it be? I explained to my ama that it was just for people my age, you know los jovenes. Que vergüenza! If my parents were home! More embarrassing were her serious hospitable ways of cooking for the whole barrio! Besides, pozole wasn’t a very cool meal for a soon to be thirteen year old. Somehow I managed to provide potato chips, not tortilla chips and salsa, no it had to be papitas in barbecue flavor. Teenagers didn’t eat much anyway right? LOL!
How do adolescents do that? How do they manage to make a parent feel stupid for doing the right thing? But they do. I’ve been on both sides of the situation.
Interpreting the facial expressions of teens
There should be a translation card for the facial language that has been used by 12 year olds and teens throughout the ages.
The rolling of the eyes: when you tell your teen to do something like be polite and greet ALL your tios and tias and be nice when they squeeze you in a hug and kiss. The indignant belittling stare: when your Ama says “Rosalba limpiaste tu cuarto?” What? Doesn’t she know she’s supposed to clean my room? The angry glare: when you hear “No puedes ir” the eyebrows knit together and you argue that you MUST go! I was one of those nasty lil 12 year olds that mastered that angry look (now i’m wishing I could tell my ama how sorry I am). There was also that blank or confused look: when pretending I didn’t hear the direct command. “Es que no oí” Lies! I’ve told you that my ama could easily be heard 😁. And finally the “I’m about to cry look”: when I was busted “Ama es que no sabia que se hico tarde!” The rule was you get home before it’s dark outside, Before I snuck the tears were piling up outside in the dark, “Pero ama, I was too busy playing, I didn’t know it was night time!”
There’s more but you get the picture, Rosalba was always innocent, a victim of circumstance. Let’s get back to my almost thirteen year old party planning shenanigans. Mira, I knew what my party needed, my ama and my big sisters would have to step aside.
The Birthday Party
I got the word out for my birthday party. I knew nothing about music but my older brothers did, so I had the record player ready. (Or maybe it was the 8-track player?) The chips y el Kool-aid were on the table, let the dancing begin. Although I was still very much a tomboy and a little kid at heart and mind, there was that awful adolescent voice stealing my kid fun with such ideas like “you’re not a little kid anymore, stop behaving like one” Hijole! I hated it, but I thought I had no choice but to get serious and practice what the older kids did, like dancing.
All of us wishing for the simple days of cake piñatas and candy. “Dale dale dale…” Shake out those dumb thoughts, what tragedy! Too old for pinatas and the wonderful dulces that gushed out when it was cracked open. No more freeze tag or escondidas, unheard of to have a thirteen year old playing hide and seek! I can only lift my hands and thank God that the adolescent rules allowed for sports organized or in the barrio.
So the big day came for my birthday party. Were there decorations? Yup, just the essential streamer. To this day I have to be schooled on the importance of presentation 😁 but like my ama I can serve you a delicious feast.
The details are fuzzy now. De veras, I’m not omitting juicy party “tea”. The boys from the barrio came, and some boys from my class room. Obnoxious boys, but the one boy I hoped would come, didn’t. I never did directly invite him, I figured he would get the word of mouth invite. I was not gonna go chasing after a dumb boy, that’s not the way my big sister Lupe rolled.
There we sat, boys munching on chips, their only available food, helping them ignore the big step of asking a girl to dance. Meanwhile we girls sat on the couch scared to death that we wouldn’t get invited to dance or worse! That one of us would be the last girl to be asked.
For a while, my ama and apa were not seen. A strange thing because my parents were strict about us staying away from boys. Pero, now I know that while things were “safe” they made themselves scarce. When I was slow dancing with a boy shorter than me, imagínate! My other nickname was Shorty! I was kinda hovering over this boy, leaning heavily on him. It probably took every ounce of strength out of him to keep himself from being crushed! Hay si, “slow dancing, swaying to the music”. All of a sudden! There was my ama in the kitchen and my apa sitting at the dining room table! Que verguenza! sheesh, all my friends saw my parents watching us, pero tambien, what relief. We didn’t have to dance anymore and, more importantly,
She brought a birthday cake. Oh what a rest it is to have an ama who thinks of her children, even when they’re thoughtless!
I do thank God so much that she never let my foolish adolescent attitudes affect her love or care of me or any of her kids. She was too busy to plan a “socially acceptable” birthday party for 8 kids and a husband every year, but she always managed to fill in the details of our life with her love and ways.
Happy Mother’s Day to all the mothers who are in the thick of the battle from changing diapers to fighting with teens, and to all the mothers whose babies have grown up and moved away, that’s where I’m at. To all the mothers whose babies are in heaven, and to all the mothers struggling with fertility. And to the mothers who have fulfilled that role for another mothers children. Feliz Dia De Las Madres, rejoice in the blessing of your inheritance momma.
Will you share with me a memory or your mother in the comments below?
Coffee is a big deal these days. It can almost lose its lustre as everyone seems to need their coffee break at their special coffee place, with their special coffee concoction. An extra shot of this or that and of course grande is not big enough anymore. I too participate in that all American tradition of imbibing coffee with my amigas o mi hija or someone I love. I think that the whole of the coffee experience is best enjoyed with a loved one.
Cafe de la Olla is not as potent as todays espresso coffees:
Somewhere in my experiences is a sweet little memory of having my first cup of coffee con mi Ama. As a conscientious American I squirm a little when I see little children taking sips of coffee from their parents cup; I mean little tots even! (My “I already raised 4 kids” know it all attitude raises it’s ugly head, do these parents not realize that coffee sips can increase their levels, of everything) I was little but not so little! And, my coffee was not expresso laced.
Canela captures your senses
One late afternoon I came home tired from a hard day of play. (These were the days before computers, and video games, when it was hard to get kids to get inside!) I thought I was getting home right smack in the middle of moms novelas, so I figured I would slide by quietly and unnoticed. (I just heard everyone catch their breath at my nerve! Or bravery? Really, it was more like foolishness. Who in their right mind messes with Novela Time?) As I opened the front door a whiff of canela captured my nostrils, mom was sitting at the kitchen table, with her cafecito. Oh Oh…
“Donde estabas? Y tu suera?”
“Jugando. We were at the park playing, I didn’t need my sweater. Se acabo la novela?”
She sat there stirring her coffee, nice and creamy with a nice blended aroma. I wanted to try it, I didn’t remember her coffee smelling this good before. I sat and stared at her until she offered me some.
“Cafe? Esta bueno?”
She told me it was her “special blend” and had me get my own coffee cup out of the cupboard. Wow! A special blend. On the stove was a small pot with boiling water and cinnamon sticks. (BTW, cinnamon sticks were essential in my amas kitchen, they brought comfort in more ways than in foods)
I poured my cinnamon water, not carefully, but messily and slowly walked over to the table with my steaming cup of cinnamon tea.
“Echale una cucharadita de cafe, no mucho”
So I stuck a teaspoon into the instant coffee; Nescafe, but just before I dumped the heaping teaspoon into the steaming tea, she calmly grabbed it and poured some coffee grounds back before letting me mix it. I stirred it and watched it. I had expected that it was gonna look creamy like hers did.
“Ama, porque esta negro?”
“Le falta la leche de clavel”
She reached back to the counter and poured some evaporated milk; Carnation brand into my cup, it was thick and creamy as it filled my cup. I was ready to sip like she had, but again she stopped me.
“Tambien le falta la azucar sino va estar amargo”
Ugh! I didn’t want bitter coffee, I wanted the sweet blended drink she was having.
Coffee time with someone you love:
Then, she really floored me and shared some Dona Maria cookies, we usually cleared out the cupboards immediately when sweets were present, an easy task when she still had 6 kids at home. This was her secret stash. As I was dipping my galleta into my cafecito she said,
“Hoy fue el fin de la novela”
No wonder! The grand finale of her novela had just closed and I could live on! I had never been in danger of the novela wrath. She was having her coffee break before starting dinner. Somehow my busy little self stopped to recognize that this was a rare moment; a break for mom and coffee with her special milk which I got to be a part of. And, it was all topped off with her recap of her novela as we sipped our coffee. I was hooked!
Well, I did it! I opened the conversation to what we Americans of Mexican influence love to talk about, food and fun! Especially food and Christmas. Tamales have been part of our traditions for ages and the creativity only increases with every generation. I grew up eating tamales at Christmas and I was part of the work crew in making them. Who would have thought that such a simple food could stir up such wonderful family traditions?
A pot of hot tamales will not necessarily lure a person, cooked maize, masa wrapped in a corn husk, is quite unassuming. Even served on a plate, still wrapped, with its ends tied or folded and looking awkward and bulky, there is no inciting of taste buds yet. But if you get close enough to an unwrapped tamale just out of the steaming pot. Suddenly, that tamale will grab you. Its savory filling reaches your nostrils; pulled pork cooked in red chile sauce and spices embedded into that masa, now it will draw a person in.
Tamales: the original social influencer?
A social influence is someone or something that can affect a social environment. You know those people that have a way with words and can draw a crowd. Or that “thing” that is so incredible that everyone must have it? Well, it’s been my experience that tamales are definitely social influencers. They are a platform we use to “tamal” or wrap a beautiful memory in and strengthen the cords of a good relationship or secure a knot in a new friendship.
An Ancient Mexican Tradition
The tamal tradition has been around for hundreds of years. It is a very humble, useful meal that has tenaciously clung to families and societies. Tamales wrapped themselves around las Americas. Out of Mexico and into Central and South America and eventually back into North America again; in the United States. Tamales have been central in celebrations and holidays. In ancient days when corn was essential for survival, they influenced religious rituals. According to Nate Barksdale “Teocintle was the name of a maize god” and indigenous societies paid it homage. There it is, my wealth of knowledge on tamales of old, now I can share just how influential tamales were around Christmas time in our house growing up.
Tamales were the focus of our Christmas dinner and celebration, the tradition of tamales wrapped itself tightly around our family.
From the start of the Christmas season, Mom would gather her ingredients. For weeks dried corn husks were piled onto the kitchen counter, while the aroma of the various kinds of dry chiles drifted out of the cupboard, their scent created anticipation of our tamale feast. She would pull out her huge pots for soaking the corn husks and cooking the meats.
Christmas was in the air! Mom was up early in her fresh apron, cooking breakfast and cooking meats for tamales. So many scents pulled me to the kitchen. I know that if you are a mom you know how busy she must have been, but as a little girl, I took all that multitasking for granted. I would eat and run out to play while she cleared up the breakfast dishes. Then, I would run in for a drink and there was mom roasting chiles and soaking them (The smell of roasting chiles always grabbed at my throat) I would run out again as she was deep into kneading the masa, it looked like a full body experience! Now, as I look back at all the activity one woman could make in the kitchen, I am floored at her superhero capabilities. What can I call her? I think Mom describes it best, instead of a cape she wore an apron.
The veggie sticks were nicely cut (As a kid I never understood why we needed veggies mixed in with our meat in the tamal, but mom said it was necessary) She also had made a nice big stack of strips out corn husks for tying the tamales. Now she was ready to assemble the troops; Bellowing our names from her kitchen; “MARINA…PATRICIA…ROSALBA…”. Since I was quite busy at play, it usually took her a couple of gut calls before I would come running in. (My kids would say that I must have inherited her vocal cords) Marina, she was second to the oldest helped spread masa onto the husks, Patty added the veggies, making sure to add the green olive into the filling. My job was to tie each end of the tamale as it came down the line. In my opinion it was the hardest part of all! Getting my fingers to get those wet corn husk ties around each end of the tamal was quite a task. I would tie one end and before I knew it, the other end would slip off!
We all started strong, making perfectly proportioned tamales. But truly, it was tedious work, and many times mom had to respread our masa since we were padding it on thick to finish faster. Maybe, us kids are the ones that gave California tamales the bad rap of “too much masa.”
We would tire out midway through the day, but mom endured through the day and into the long steamy night as the tamales cooked into a nice solid consistency. Keeping an eye on her tamales, she made Mexican rice, refried beans and salsa, nice embellishments. Mom also made sure to make a huge pot of champurrado; the traditional hot thick chocolate maiz drink that was essential to complete the ambiance of our meal. It was cozy, comfy and delicious. A nice accompaniment to her simple sweet tamales.
When the church bells rang for midnight mass, mi ama was ready for the festivities. Midnight Mass was a blur since we had to be pulled out of bed half asleep to go sit in the church pews. (this was perhaps the only time the priest saw such exemplary behavior, quiet children sleeping in the pews :D) When the mass was over, people slowly and quietly filed out of the church. All of a sudden, we kids were alive and bustling with energy, it was time to gather back at the house. My older brothers with their families would fill the house, bringing gifts and sweets and lots of giddy noise. Mom walked in immediately slipping her apron back on. During the chatter around the dinner table mom made sure everyone was served and satisfied. Beautiful memories, amidst the empty corn husks. In the wee hours of the morning, we opened our gift and ate more tamales, eventually we would crash and for us Christmas day was quiet. Maybe it was not quiet, but it was a regular play day, with the kids sharing their new toys mingled with the old. (It was not until I left home that I realized that we Mexican Americans celebrate Christmas Day, the day before!)
Christmas day was when the ladies in the neighborhood began their great tamal exchange, all of them sharing tamales from their personal recipes. (Remember, recipes the Mexican American way) We kids were the messengers, running across the street or up two blocks bearing tamales. My older siblings took some home and connected mom through her tamales to their neighbors and friends, a whole social network booming as tamales were enjoyed. And tamales did their great work of influencing families to gather.
Since Christmas time is a wonderful time of different holiday dishes and traditions, I thought it would be a good time to tell you about my learning to cook “journey”. (Anyone outside of the Mexican-American circle would call it a roller coaster!)
I’ve been cooking since I was barely a teenager. (As a young roommate I never shared the ‘wealth’ of my knowledge with my roomies, since I believed knowing how to cook meant following recipes) I cannot say I love cooking, especially the way I was inducted into the kitchen, but my ego is strutting; bien culeca when someone says “Oooh are those Rosies enchi’s?”.
It all started when I was almost fourteen years old, the summer before high school, when my whole life would turn upside down. My older siblings were all going off to work with mom in the grapevines of Coachella Valley, but I was not old enough to get a work permit. However, I was old enough to cook all by myself in the hot kitchen and so began my culinary journey.
Cooking class in my Mexican mother’s home was very informal. (I just felt my daughter roll her eyes at the obvious truth) Chores done and laundry continual, Mom would pull out some meat and say,
“When this defrosts, go ahead and cook it and serve it with frijoles de la ollatoday. No need to refry the beans today and don’t forget to make the tortillas first, they’ll stay warm”
“What?! Ok, Wait, what do I do with the meat?”
Without even looking back at me, she’d say,
“Con cebollita picada y pimienta. Ah, y un poco de sal. No se te pase!”
“That’s it? Some diced onion, pepper and salt? How do I know if I have enough salt or too much in it?”
She’d put down the laundry basket, look at me and say,
“You have to taste it Rosalba. If you need to add a little something, check the fridge, maybe some diced jalapeno, or garlic. There’s comino in the cupboard.”
She’d go right back to the endless laundry.
“Dad’s gonna be here just after noon, so be ready to serve”
That was the lesson. After staring at the meat, which was seeping blood, I wondered how I was going to create something delicious like Mom always did. I had no choice but to go for it and cook.
I cut the meat into small bites, I could not get all the fat out and that worried me. Still, I seasoned it with a dash of pepper, salt, and a sprinkle of cumin. Then, I just tossed it all into the pan with diced onions. That fat that I struggled to cut off, simmered and blended with the onion. As it continued to cook down it blended with the meat juices and created a gravy. It looked tasty, hmmm. I added a dash more salt, and let it simmer.
Mom came by and stirred the simmering pan, tasted, and added a dash more pepper and cumin. She lifted the towel my warm flour tortillas rested in, (I forgot to mention that making dough for tortillas had perhaps been my first lesson in the kitchen, a constant practice, since in our home we had fresh flour tortillas everyday) she covered them again and keeping a straight face she walked toward the door where the laundry waited.
“You’ll definitely have to practice rolling out your tortillas, round is the shape we’re aiming for.”
Dad came in, washed his hands and sat down to be served. I held my breath as I brought his plate to him. He uncovered the tortillas, lifted it up high and smirked.
“This looks like the seat of your bicycle” (rolling tortillas was not my constant practice a whole different struggle)
He rolled it and bit into it and took a fork full of meat and beans to his mouth. He ate everything on his plate, then took the last bicycle shaped tortilla and cleanup the gravy, and spoke.
“That was good. Thank you”
After that, I felt like I was a culinary graduate! (after all my apa had just approved me, every daughter’s dream) Now, I could conquer any belly, taste bud or picky person. Of course, I quickly realized that for basic training in my amas kitchen, the first lesson was that it was not as scary or difficult as it seemed, and it was nowhere near impossible. I would have to watch very carefully as she taught me to make the other Mexican essentials of her kitchen, the refried beans, the Mexican rice, the salsas, the sauces for the meats and on and on.
(My daughter in-law also says that she has to keep a really keen eye on my hands as I work in the kitchen because all of a sudden, “Le voy a echar un poquito de este” But I neglect to tell her what the “este” is beforehand or how much of it I added, making her learning experience much like mine)
Although cooking is not my favorite thing to do, I truly enjoy when others enjoy my cooking, then I see its value and love it.