Sunday, January 8, 2012

What chilaquiles taught me about life & love.

All I really wanted as a kid was a third grade summer just like every other kid's third grade summer. To wake up late, sit in front of the television watching morning cartoons while Cheerio milk drool collected on my lap, and then run out the door to throw stuff at things ... or things at stuff, depending on the weather.

Granted, many of my summer days were like this. Many, but not most.

I would get about as far as wiping the milk drool off my face and start to make my lightning-fast bolt out the door, when my mom would inevitably call out my name.

"LUCIAAA, ven!"

My ama is the only person I know who's shout can cause anything to defy all laws of physics. With just one call, both of my feet would be suspended in a mid-air running position with my frizzy, braided pig-tails jutting out at each side of my head like giant antennae. My brothers would continue on their way to play marbles or G.I. Joe, or whatever game they conjured up that day and I would turn around and make my slow walk back into the house, kicking invisible rocks along the way.

In my little fat-kid head, I thought that the tasks my mom had me complete were a completely normal part of every little girl's summer chores. It wasn't until I went back to school and talked about them and received the wide-eyed "you had to do WHAT?" response that I realized they weren't.

There were days that I had to go out onto the back patio with my ama and assemble a hand-cranked grinder and secure it to the edge of a table for whatever meal it was she would be making. After a while I became an expert in learning to assemble the culinary contraption, always being careful not to hold on to the blades because, as my mom once said "I don't want finger chicharones in my tortillas." The grinder had a vice-like bottom which would attach to the edge of anything hard and steady, with two cylindrical blades covered by a metal tulip-shaped cup. The arm was attached to the end of the cylinders so that each turn would rotate both cylinders and crush anything that fell in between.

We would usually grind maize for tortillas, gorditas or any other doughy dish. My ama would slowly pour in the maiz as I turned the handle over, and over ... and over again. Every so often switching which of my chubby arms I would use. I'd eventually start getting so tired, my posture would begin to suffer, shoulders slowly making their way to the floor. To which my mom would shout out "parate bien!" and just like that, they'd shoot back up and even reach for the sky.

Once the grinding was over, my mom would take the fresh masa into the kitchen and I'd watch her slap together perfectly rounded tortillas or gorditas (My job during the gordita making was to scrape the middle of the cooked masa round so that the beans and/or meat could rest perfectly in the middle. It was my favorite thing to do and I'd get nerdily excited about doing it.)

Sometimes, though, it wasn't just tortillas we'd have for dinner. Sometimes my ama wanted to make mole. Chicken mole. Mole, made with chickens. And the task at hand for me was not to help her with the masa, but to help her with the chicken.

Now, you'd think this would be as easy as walking to the market and asking the butcher for a whole chicken or two. But no, not in my third grade summer reality.

At one point in our suburban history, my family - like many families along the dusty streets of Pacoima, had some small farm animals in their yard. Mainly chickens, at one point we had a goat, but that was a dark point in my childhood memory... let's not talk about that now...

I digress. So, on the days that my ama would say she wanted to make chicken mole, I knew what fate would be bestowed on me and Chickey, Charlie, Chompiras, Chuck and Chuy (names I had at one point given my chicken friends). My wild brain would imagine myself opening the coop and setting them all free, waving at them frantically as they flew over the orange trees. But no, those stupid chickens didn't want to learn how to fly. So instead I'd follow my mom out with a pot of water that I'd set on the fire and watch as she chose one, chased it around a bit and then with one, swift and fatal movement, swing the poor bastard over her head by it's neck until it fell limp.

She'd dunk the now defunct Chompiras in the boiling water a few times, yank at a few of the feathers saying "fijate, fijate como lo hago" and then hand him to me. I'd sit outside in my little kid chair, with my little kid overalls and my little kid braids, doing not so little kid chores like yanking out feathers from chicken carcases. When I was done she'd finish the job cleaning him up, draining his blood and removing all unneeded organs. She'd cook Chompiras with some garlic and salt and then cover him with the spicy reddish brown mole.

While saddened that my chicken friend was gone, I never let one of his fat little legs go to waste. My ama makes some awesome mole.

During my third grade summer, I thought that my ama was just being a parental tyrant and making me do chores because I was there. Little did I know that those things she had me do would play into my adult life. During my third grade summer I probably could have learned to double dutch, but I learned to be patient instead. I learned that, while there may be short-cuts in life, doing the steady and dedicated work to get what you want and more so what you need adds much more flavor to your end product.

I woke up today nauseous from an over-indulgent night out with with a friend. Laying in my bed, staring at the ceiling I also began to feel a pain grow in my belly and reach up into my chest. I knew this wasn't because of Johnny's Gin & Tonics, but because of a recent decision I forced myself to make, one that I knew would cause me a great deal of pain for the time, but would also, in the end, bring a great deal of clarity and strength for those involved.

Immediately I thought about driving to my parent's house, laying my head on my ama's shoulder and asking her to make me some of her delicious chilaquiles to help me overcome the pain. And then I realized that my mom's shoulder wouldn't always be there. That one day I would walk through her door, and her smells would no longer be filling her house. Where would I be then? Laying in my cold bed with an endless heartache?

I had to recreate my third grade summer, understand what she did, how she did it and why she did it. It was this way that I could keep her shoulder close to me whenever I needed it.  

I called her up and asked if she would teach me exactly how she made her chilaquiles. Happily, she agreed and told me to pick up a few things on my way. She stood by me, instructing me what to do, how to do it, and just how much of what to add (which was always just a "pinch" or a "bunch" or "tu alli tanteale"). It wasn't a long process, but it was a process nonetheless. Adding, taking away, "tanteandole," - waiting, being patient...

"Hechale mas aciete."
"Quitale aciete"
"Falta sal"
"Menea la olla o se te queman"
"Esperate... todavia le falta... un poquito mas.... y ya."

I was nerdily excited when my ama said I had done a good job and that my pan of chilaquiles was ready to be shoved into my mouth. I turned to the living room and told my dad "I know how to make chilaquiles like my ama!!" To which he stoically replied "are you sure?"

I wasn't. I'd have to try again.

Funny what chilaquiles can teach you about life and love.


  1. This is a great post. Thanks for sharing. I remember my mom's and grandma's Chilaquiles (and gorditas)(same recipe LOL)What a beautiful relationship you have with your folks. :)

  2. i just love your blog!!! You are such an amazing writer! You better write a book!! me oyes??? WRITE A BOOK!!!!! everytime i read one of your stories i get transported to another world... i can almost touch and smell everything you are talking about.... YOU ARE AWESOME!!!!!

  3. Hello there, I'm a writer with the LA Times who would very much like to get in touch with you. You wrote an entry a while back about your San Marcos blanket. I cover Latino issues and I'm writing a story about San Marcos blankets and how much Latinos love them. I'm very interested in chatting with you a bit more about your writing...could you please send me an e-mail as soon as possible to

    Thank so much and hope to hear from you very soon!


    Here is your previous post for reference:
    This rain makes me extremely nostalgic; it reminds me of the mornings I'd wake up, throw a blanket over my shoulder and lazily stagger to the sofa. That San Marcos blanket over my shoulder feeling heavy like a sack of potatoes, yet feeling as if I was surrounding myself in a cloud.

    My mom would be in the kitchen making tortillas and warming up a pot of beans. The sound of her hand slapping together the delicious corn dough made me sink further into my blanket and smile with enthusiasm. I knew that I'd soon be enjoying those warm tortillas with some hearty beans and queso fresco.

    Her humming syncing perfectly with the slapping and clanking of the tortilla press and the droplets hitting the window just above my warm San Marcos burrow.

    Unfortunately I have yet to capture my mom's beautiful humming and songs, but I wanted to share this quickie memory with you all.

    These are my grandfathers favorite songs, which he sung to his son (my father) and the rest of his children, possibly on rainy days like today. The songs in the videos are sung by my tio Everardo