I have a new friend. His name is Don Patricio. He’s in his mid to late 60’s and the abuelo of twin boys on I’s soccer team. He and his wife arrived in Chicago 40 years ago from Ecuador. Now they live in St. Louis, with their son and his wife, helping to raise the grandchildren. He’s been here a year and he desperately misses Chicago and its large Latino community – I hear it in his voice and recognize it because I too share that same longing and familiarity.
He calls me La Reina Mexicana- The Mexican Queen. He is very sweet and introduces me to the other Latinos at the elementary school. He knows them all and they adore him. There are Cubanos, Ecuadorians, Argentines and Bolivians. We all have our own story of how we arrived here in middle America.
This past Friday night, the elementary school held it’s annual international culinary festival fundraiser. The gym was filled with an ethnic smorgasbord of foods- Japanese sushi rolls, green tea matcha cake, Jamaican sorrel, jerk chicken, festival, German bratwurst, Cuban tamales, and on and on. It was a huge celebration of our merging of cultures. I represented Mexico and made 40 servings of arroz con leche– Mexican rice pudding. So it only made sense for Don Patricio and I to spend Thursday’s entire soccer practice discussing what else but food. I asked him what he was making for the festival- I knew it was going to be something yummy. He told me his wife was going to make ham empanadas. That one word alone took me back about 30 years to Tia Chica’s empanadas.
Throughout my childhood, my Tia Chica – my dad’s older sister would visit from Mexico City and stay with us for months at a time. When I was tiny little, I hated when she visited. She’d cook a ton of Mexican food, yell and snitch on us a whole lot and call us malcreadas which basically means “spoiled brats.” She would wash the laundry and hang dry all of our white undershirts and chones on a rope clothesline in the backyard. This would have been alright except for the fact that there was a huge public park behind our house where my friends would hang out and I lived in constant fear that someone would see my underwear and make fun. Imagine climbing a tree- “hey- there’s L’s house- oh my gosh- is that her underwear flapping in the wind?” Tia Chica would also on occasion pick me up from school. She’d be waiting there with her long wool skirts and peasant blouses and the kids would curiously ask- “Who is that? Is that your grandmother?” Oh I hated it. I would ignore them and say nothing and begrudgingly walk home with Tia Chica.
I don’t exactly recall when but somewhere along the way, as I grew older, I began to look forward to Tia Chica’s visits. I do remember looking forward to coming home from school and smelling the sweet smells of home-made sopa, tacos, frijoles, arroz, sopes, enchiladas and of course the empanadas. Always those empanadas. She used to make the sweet ones for us. Fold over the dough and crimp it down with a fork. Inside filling was sweet pumpkin- calabaza. Dipped in granulated sugar and warm right out of the oven. Mmmm. I can still remember how it felt on my tongue and in my mouth. I always asked her to make them and she always did.
Tia Chica was also an extremely talented crocheting and knitting goddess. Whenever she wasn’t in the kitchen she was behind her needles, working on whatever blanket she was working on at the time. Hands always moving back and forth. Weaving miracles. We always had lots of blankets of different colors and patterns lying around the house. When I think of childhood, I remember curling up with one of those blankets on the couch. Years later, I had the precious gift of having a mother-in-law who knitted those same blankets- a few for all 3 kids when they were born. M has slept with his every night of the past 13 years. It is in tatters and travels with him to scouting camping adventures. Still it remains.
When I got pregnant with M, one of my first thoughts was that I had to have Tia Chica knit some clothes for him. And she did. She made several outfits and gave them to me on one of her visits to the U.S. He wore them a few times. He was my only child who wore them. They are currently tucked away under delicate sheets of tissue paper in my attic in Los Angeles, along with the other heirlooms.
Tia Chica danced at my wedding. She was able to meet and get to know every single one of my children. Incredibly, she was even in the labor and delivery room right after M was born. She has been a constant figure in the background of my life and of the lives of my sisters. Tia Chica is 83 years old now. She no longer knits or crochets or cooks her beautiful foods. She recognized me the last time she visited my parents. I was thankful for just that. As with many people who grow older with dementia, her memory weaves in and out and you don’t know exactly what or whom they will remember. I don’t know if she ever really knew how much she gave to us Sanchez girls. I want to believe that she did. After we’d all grown up, whenever she came to visit, we’d shower Tia Chica with so much attention and love- Tia Chica is here! A living embodiment of our childhood is here! She even got to yell at all of our 17 kids and call them malcreados. Our kids would scurry away, roll their eyes and with a sigh, say- “Tia Chica said we can’t do that.” My sisters and I absolutely loved it. It seemed like the proper passage of childhood. That’s our beloved Tia Chica. That and love, empanadas, and blankets. It was enough and it was good. So very good.