Image Credit: Mural drawn onto the side of the bus shelter at 46th Avenue & Taraval in San Francisco, CA
I tried to behave. Then there was the night I peed in the nacatamal pot.
The giant stainless steel cauldron squatted by the dark stairwell in the old Mission District Victorian. The night before the pot had been a bubbling volcano of fragrance stacked to the brim with platano leaf-wrapped packets of corn masa and pork that were the Nicaraguan-born Antonia’s specialty.
Antonia, savior and monster, had raised me from infancy. When I misbehaved, which seemed to be often, Antonia reminded me of my lowly bastard-Mexican status: “If I didn’t watch you day and night, for sure you’d be out in the street selling your ass.” I was doomed to be bad.
Seven years and three months old, I was no longer soft and dimpled but angular with long feet and hands. My pink cheeks had become rough, sallow. I had greasy hair cut in a bad Prince Valiant style. Crooked bangs hung over black Neanderthal eyebrows. When I looked in the mirror, stark brown eyes glared back. And like a caged animal, I was both fearful of and desperately dependent on mycaptor.
The kindly nuns at Notre Dame Grammar School fretted about me. I never bathed and was late for school every day, slinking into my classroom in a dirty uniform and scuffed saddle oxfords. I acted weird too. Some days I felt so smart and curious about the world, squirming in my seat, one hand, sometimes two, waving wild and high, asking too many questions and yelling out too many answers. Then there were the days, weeks even, when I burrowed into my desk, lost in some mean, ugly mood. My only playground companions were the other school pariahs. The nuns never asked about my home life or the strange old people who drove me to and from school, a distance of one city block. Those were the ’50s in San Francisco.
I dreamed of a happy home, like Donna Reed or Father Knows Best. Antonia thrilled me with the miraculous tale of how I came to be hers, how my handsome father Raymond rescued me from Clara, my slut of a mother, and gifted me to Antonia to raise as her own. I remembered the terror of being taken from Antonia and confined to a playpen in a big dungeon-like place. Antonia proudly described descending on Clara’s doorstep, the butcher knife clutched in her fist, screaming for the whole street to hear, “I’m here to kill you, Clara, and all your other filthy bastards if you don’t give me back my daughter.” I was returned to Antonia, and Clara never tried to claim me again. This was my proof that Antonia loved me.
Antonia told me of her romantic past. She was the love child of a liaison between a powerful Nicaraguan politician and a housemaid. Running away to America she was shipwrecked off the Manzanilla coast and rescued by Yaqui Indians. The Yaquis trained her in both the healing and black arts. Antonia found her way to San Francisco at the start of World War II. She passed herself off as a man and went to work in the shipyards. The other guys nicknamed her Shorty. She hoarded her earnings and bought a two-flat Victorian.
Antonia was illiterate and spoke a poor Spanish; her English was virtually unintelligible; yet she was a self-made woman in the United States. I took my own pride in having been the one to teach Antonia to painfully scrawl out her name. And now at almost seven and one-half, I could read and write, and Antonia depended on me to interpret for her.
Living with Antonia kept me and her current husband, Mr.Hill, a widower from West Virginia, on high alert. Antonia was small but formidable. Yet as I grew, Antonia shrank, transforming into a tiny elfin creature, dark, dry, leathery. She kept her scant hair cut boyishly and dyed bright red. Around the house she shuffled around in a stained muumuu and dirty “chanclas,” effective as both footwear and weapons to fling at me or Mr. Hill. Downtown she wore her snakeskin stilettos, gaudy blouses and skirts, and a musty glass-eyed animal pelt around her shoulders.
One learned to tiptoe around Antonia and her violently fluctuating moods. She was never far from a butcher knife, lead pipe, or machete. She kept a loaded pistol in her dresser. She was stridently paranoid and suspicious of all strangers, especially females. She loved men, and had a weak spot for ex-convicts, thieves, killers, and wife abusers. The flat at 1912 15th Street, well-known to SFPD, was a halfway house for men going in and out of prison. Not trusting me or the men, Antonia kept me under lock and key.
Antonia took in rent for the flat below and commandeered Mr. Hill’s monthly pension, leaving him a few quarters for his Copenhagen tobacco. The two fought loudly and frequently, often about money. When finances dipped dangerously low, Antonia made me accompany her down into the tomb-cold basement at midnight to formally request money from her close friend, “Satanas y Lucifer.” He always came through.
Antonia picked fights with complete strangers, hurling Spanglish obscenities at them and “hijos de la gran puta.” Most often the abuse descended on me or Mr. Hill. Afraid for myself and humiliated by my guardian’s excesses, I avoided further provoking Antonia in public. But at home I fought furiously and screamed back Antonia’s obscenities in my own bad Spanish. And then I fled in terror, easily outrunning the old woman and her knives and machete, to the safety of the bathroom. There, crouched in the cold, stained porcelain tub, I was prepared to wait it out—sometimes for a few hours, sometimes for days. Sooner or later Antonia exhausted herself pacing, screeching, and flailing at the bathroom door. She would doze off, or simply forget about me.
But making nacatamales commanded a truce in the household. The art of nacatamales required Antonia’s complete dedication and energy. I loved nacatamales too, the whole process of making and then eating them. It would start with an early morning trip to Chinatown in the 1953 Mercury sedan. Mr. Hill drove; Antonia arranged herself majestically in the seat behind him, with me perched alongside her. Antonia barked directions until Mr. Hill navigated the Mercury fitfully to a central location and waited. We visited several shops, each unique but all overflowing with boxes of colorful fruits and vegetables and bins of strange herbs and exotic mushrooms. Here Antonia would find the best ojas de platano, dried chiles, garlic, and long-grain white rice. I carried the wrapped bundles and struggled to keep up as Antonia briskly moved on to the bustling meat market where she and the Chinese butcher yelled at one another in mutually understood pidgin English. Leaning over the counter she examined the pink glossy sides of pork and finally selected two large slabs. She worried the butcher until he brought out the perfect hunk of “manteca,” snowy white and fresh. Only the finest ingredients would do for Antonia’s famous nacatamales.
If all went well our last stop was La Palma on 24th Street, where Antonia picked up uncooked corn masa, handmade corn tortillas, and any remaining condiments. On the way home we stopped by Dona Luz’s house to borrow the special nacatamal pot. By noon Mr. Hill and I were lugging heavy grocery bags and the big awkward pot up the narrow stairs to our flat.
Antonia dismissed her helpers, found her kitchen apron, and went to work. First she cut up cubes of manteca and tossed them into an extra-large cast-iron frying pan. She then chopped up the raw meat and erected one big pork pyramid on the cloth-covered Formica table. The manteca sizzled and spat as it fried up crisp in its own copious grease. Golden brown curls of pig skin were skimmed out, and the oil was poured into a saucepan and kept warm on a back burner.In the sink on a rough three-legged stone,“comal,” Antonia pummeled chiles and garlic. She massaged the ground condiments into the pork bits and set them aside. Then she dropped still-warm chicharrones into the comal, grinding out small crispy chips. Mr. Hill came out to scour the nacatamal pot in the bathtub, after which he was ordered back to his room with a mug of Nescafé and a cold carnitas taco. I nibbled on chicharrones, capers, and olives. Antonia did not stop to eat.
Antonia then kneaded the warm liquid manteca and chicharron bits into the masa. I sat mesmerized watching the twisted and bony fingers pushing and pulling to create a glistening sculpture of creamy gold masa studded with nuggets of pork rind. Antonia poked my shoulder with a greasy finger, and I headed for the sink to wash and peel the half-dozen potatoes that needed dicing. I also untied the bundles of ojas de platano and carefully wiped them clean. Meanwhile Antonia prepared the pot, lining it with ojas before filling the bottom with cold water and turning the gas burner on low flame.
Antonia positioned her ingredients in order of use on the kitchen table and several adjacent chairs. The radio was tuned to the Mexican station at high volume. Antonia surveyed her workplace one last time, saw that it was good, and sat herself down. She started making nacatamales. First Antonia picked three ojas de platano, which she dipped in water and wiped down with a manteca-moistened towel. She laid them flat and overlapping. She centered a fistful of masa on the leaves, then tucked in exactly two chunks of pork, one chicharron, a tiny spoonful of capers, one olive, three potato cubes, and a half teaspoon of uncooked rice. I was stationed on the right side of the table with a ball of string and scissors. Antonia carefully folded the ojas over each plump tamal, wrapped two more ojas crosswise, and tied the whole thing up with a two-foot length of string.
And so the stacked rows of leafy green bundles became a tower of nacatamales. Around 10 p.m. Antonia tied a neat string bow around the last nacatamal. Mr. Hill had long since given up on dinner and gone to bed grumbling. I was too excited for sleep.
Antonia rose stiffly and turned the burner to a medium flame. Leaning on my shoulder she climbed onto a chair next to the stove. I began handing off one tidy bundle after another for Antonia to stack geometrically within the pot. At last, with the kitchen table empty and the lid sitting snug on the well-filled pot, Antonia stepped wearily down. While the nacatamales steamed at a leisurely pace, the tedious cleanup process began. The pot bubbled and burbled, suffusing the kitchen with moist heat and a heady array of delicious aromas. It was a winter night, yet the breeze from the open window felt fresh and invigorating as the walls and I sweated.
It was 2 a.m. The kitchen was clean and the nacatamales were ready. My reward was to sample the first tamal out of the pot. Antonia cut the string to reveal steaming, slightly gelatinous masa and savory tidbits nestled in the dark, shiny leaves. I dug in with delight, trying not to burn my tongue sucking in the salty glob of chicharron.
But nacatamales taste better the next day. Always hungry I was already looking forward to the breakfast tamal accompanied by hot tortillas and sweet black coffee.
I went to bed and prayed to the Virgin Mary that this happy peace would last. It lasted until the screams and curses exploding out of the kitchen announced that a typical Antonia day had dawned.
Late that evening I sprawled on the bed reading, bored and restless after a day spent locked in my room. A strange realization crept over me. How quiet it was—no yelling, no doors slamming, no rattle of key chains. Where was Antonia? Putting my book down I tiptoed to the door and noiselessly turned the knob—it opened easily. I peeked outside. No one. I had heard Antonia lock the protesting Mr. Hill inside his tiny room hours ago. I was also supposed to be locked in. Somehow, amazingly, Antonia had slipped up on this particular night. I thought about it. Had she been called away unexpectedly and forgotten to grab her big key ring? Or was Antonia so sure that I would have neither the time nor the nerve to try something. I stepped over the threshold. In the dim hall lights, the gigantic metal pot gleamed mysteriously. I listened hard. Reassuring soft bursts of snoring from Mr. Hill’s room broke the silence within the flat. From the bottom of the stairs and from outside came voices. Antonia seemed to be conferring intently with the neighbor below.
Suddenly I had to pee, badly. Beneath the unmade mess of a bed where Antonia and I slept sat the stinky pot we both used at night instead of the hall toilet with its vague sexual associations. Time stopped as I stood alone on the other side of the airless room where I spent the major portion of my waking and sleeping hours. I heard the distant murmur of the voices. I inhaled the cool, clean air coming up the stairwell. I took a breath and sprinted across the hall. Sparing but a quick glance down the stairs, I pulled down my underpants and squatted over the nacatamal pot.
Oh, what great physical release and pleasure as the hot pee splashed and rang within the cool, silvery depths of the pot! Followed instantly by shocked awareness of what I’d just done. I yanked up my pants and fled back into my room. Once inside its familiar gloom, I turned the latch and locked myself in.
My heart pounded. There would be hell to pay, but at that moment I did not care. I had tasted freedom. It was terrifying. And delicious!
Evelyn Martinez is a 71 year old retired nurse practitioner who has been writing from the moment a pencil fell into her hand. She lives by the ocean in San Francisco. She loves words, veggie tacos, Antarctica, and pit bulls. For pleasure she swims, studies ballet, and happily takes to the stage as a supernumerary for San Francisco Opera. To quote a wiser person than she, “It’s not over till it’s over.”