“¿Qué estás haciendo abuelita?” “¿Puedo ayudar?” “¿Enséñame por favor?” This was our ritual, rites performed under a canopy of smoke and dust below the splendor of cerulean Mexican skies. The liturgy was recited in a mixture of our respective tongues; we used our bodies and objects to make meaning of language. From these simple entreaties the relationship between my grandmother and I blossomed. It is my sense that our bond has always been accented by an intricate fusion of intimacy and distance; the borders that divided us, in fact, drew us closer together. I am her first granddaughter. She is my only living grandmother. She waited eleven years for my birth. I waited eleven months each year to reunite with her. As a child I struggled to comprehend the expanse of space and time that separated us. Instead, I measured distance with my senses.
One day from Guerrero, as our brown American colossus barreled through Querétaro, I surrendered my sweater to its floorboard and rolled down the window. My trigeña curls danced frenetically along the window’s beveled edge. I bathed in the delicate Bajío air that sliced through days of cigarette smoke and cynicism, breathing deeply its resplendent, warm air. Six hours outside of Acapulco we glided smoothly along the autopista. Roadblocks, potholes, and topes became relics of a two thousand mile expanse. Two hours from El Bejuco, sea salt invaded the air, hinting of red snapper and prawns. As the sun dipped into the Pacific Ocean and flashes of green shimmered at the horizon signaling my return, I reunited with my grandmother.
My grandmother rose with the sun to scrub every corner of her home. Daybreak was a harmonious time; the lilting voices of peddlers singing their wares transformed the street below her home into a musical floating fish market. With a chorus of vendors and roosters signaling the beginning of a new day, I drowsily stumbled out of bed. Like a lighthouse guiding ships lost at sea, I found my grandmother waiting for me patiently from her perch—a round metal frame chair with lilac plastic cords woven in a sunburst pattern—guiding me to join her over a cup of Nescafé. Between sips of coffee her small, weathered fingers smoothed the folds of her apron. Splotches of bleach ornate as French lace dotted each apron she owned. Though I spent each day with her, my grandmother was an enigma to me and I marveled at her prowess. In a dusky kitchen, my grandmother, through the alchemy of lime and water, transformed kilos of wet corn into hot, delicious tortillas. Delighted by her company and my senses awakened, I insisted upon joining my grandmother in her morning routine.
Though I was “muy Americana,” my grandmother found my eagerness to help endearing and designated token chores to make me feel useful. After our café we swept the patio—a large, shaded cement slab that typical of tropical climates functioned as a foyer, dinning room, and sitting area. More than any other part of her home, the patio accumulated dust from the adjacent dirt enclosure, which served as a 24-hour cafeteria to her menagerie of chickens, pigs, and stray dogs and cats. I remember sweeping diligently, trying to mimic my grandmother’s adroit maneuvering of the escoba. Despite my best efforts, I spread dust and dirt from one corner of the patio to the other and sent the chickens squawking in a frenzy to escape the dust storm that erupted from my miniature broom.
Clumsy and unaccustomed to the chores that pueblo life demanded, my grandmother nevertheless praised my feeble efforts with a few kinds words. With the scent of wood smoke clinging to her tawny neck, she embraced me. Emboldened by my grandmother’s warmth, I trailed behind her, pleading to help prepare a meal or wash dishes. After breaking several plates in the stone lavadero, I was demoted to washing silverware and plastic cups. Fully convinced I had been sentenced to the domain of the hopelessly unskilled, I was surprised when one morning my abuela handed me a pail of maíz and instructed me to take the corn to the village molino. Like Gretel minus Hansel, my trail down two stories of jagged stairs that descended from the patio, across El Bejuco’s only paved road, and up a narrow dirt path to the mill, shone with light yellow kernels of corn. Clinging to a few sweaty centavos in my hand, I watched in awe as a woman fed the maíz through an enormous machine, adding water at intervals from the spigot that dangled above until a creamy dough towered over the sides of my indigo pail. With the buzz of the molino echoing in my ears, I raced home.
When I returned, my abuela was in the adobe kitchen that jutted out from the concrete house. She was adding kindling to a small fire under the cast iron comal. Smiling, my abuela reached into the pail and placed a clump of masa in the palm of my hand. She guided my small fingers kneading the warm dough into a firm ball. Gently she placed my right hand over the doughy mound, pressing it into a thick disk. My abuela taught me a song, the equivalent of patty cake, to keep rhythm as I patted the disk, alternating it from my left to my right hand until it flattened to a squat gordita. She led me to the comal, easing the fat tortilla from the exterior of my right palm on to the hot griddle sending up spirals of smoke that curled between the cracks of the kitchen’s mud and twig walls. It was an ugly tortilla, the type only an abuela could love. But she insisted it was perfect and anointed it by setting it atop the stack of completed tortillas.
This became our routine, and with each passing day my tortillas became slightly less disfigured. I left Mexico that year with a new skill and a budding confidence. I was a quiet, yet curious kid. My parents, though loving, were unyielding. My father, a retired U.S. Army soldier, was a very meticulous and regimented man. My mom’s impoverished upbringing in Mexico and the hardscrabble life as an immigrant in the U.S. molded her into a hard-working, but sometimes obstinate person. The margin of error in my home was small. Back in the United States I was an anxious child, afraid my behavior fell short of my parents’ high standards. However, when visiting my abuelita in Mexico, I shed the reticence and self-doubt that marked my childhood in the States. Everything about Mexico, from the food to the language, was at once familiar, yet foreign to me. But there was something reassuring about Mexico, and to a great extent, I attribute that sense of reassurance to her. With my abuelita by my side, somewhere between the quotidian and the capricious I began, in fledgling Spanish, to find my voice.
I have been fortunate in many respects in life. I miss my grandmother every day, but when I miss her the most, I think back to all the years I spent with her. However, bribery and carnage has made it impossible for me to visit my grandmother for the past ten years. At the close of Vincente Fox’s final term as Mexico’s president, drug cartel violence detonated throughout the country—it is alleged the former President has ties with the strongest and most lethal of cartels, the Sinaloa Cartel—and at the epicenter of these explosions of violence are ordinary citizens, like my grandmother. Since the start of Mexico’s so-called “war on drugs” upwards of 85,000 people have been murdered in narco-related crimes. It is estimated that 40 percent of Mexican households has one member that has fallen victim to the cartel’s barbarity. Those who survive rape, torture, extortion, or kidnapping, bear the physical and psychological cachet of narco-terrorism for life. I speak not from first hand experience, but even from a distant perspective, I too feel the shock waves course through my veins. A close family friend, a woman who is like an aunt to me, survived a kidnapping and unspeakable torture. My beloved grandmother has also been targeted, all because she has family in the United States. After an extortion attempt, she forbade me from returning to Mexico to visit her, fearful I would be kidnapped or worse yet.
Doña Tonita, as she is called in El Bejuco, is a diminutive but determined woman, and I’d like to think I take after her. I have sustained ten years in exile from my grandmother by cooking the foods she taught me to prepare in my youth. Try as they may, politicians and thugs—one indistinguishable from the other—can neither erode love nor erase memory. Once as a young girl I lost a prized amethyst mylar balloon I had received as a birthday gift. I was upset, but my mom persuaded me to believe the balloon would reach my grandmother in Mexico, and that way she could share the celebration of my birth with me. Every time I hear the sizzle of a tortilla on the comal and see the silver coils dancing in the air, I think of my grandmother, and I feel her presence when I cook her food.
Anahí Douglas is an adjunct instructor in New York City where she teaches U.S. Multi-Ethnic Literature, U.S. Latin@ Literature, and Media Literacy. Her doctoral work at the CUNY Graduate Center English Program focuses on race, immigration, and border studies. Anahí is a food enthusiast, and is very pleased to share her thoughts on the politics of memory, food, and immigration with the readers of Entropy Magazine.