Category Archives: Growing Up Mexican-American

90 Years Young

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She was born on June 22, 1926. Her father- Asuncion Espinoza came from a wealthy Mexican cattle ranching family. Her mother was named Librada. Her comfortable childhood was swept away from under her feet when her father decided to leave the family for another woman. He left them completely impoverished and desolate at a very troubled time in the world- the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution and the crisis of a depressed economy in both the U.S. and Mexico.

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Asuncion and Librada’s Wedding (early 1900’s)

Consuelo or “Abuelita Chelo” as we have all come to call her was the little girl who was abandoned along with her siblings and her mother Librada.  Abuelita Chelo is my grandmother and our family matriarch. She turned 90 years old this past week and on Sunday, we will celebrate her and her life. Abuelita never forgot how her life changed drastically from one day to the next when her father left the family and the extreme poverty that followed, living as a homeless family on the streets of Mexico, her and her siblings hustling to make money on the streets as shoe shiners and gum sellers- this childhood trauma followed her all the rest of her life and brought her tremendous sadness.

My grandmother is not the baking cookies type. Never was. Instead I remember her strength and fortitude. She taught me to work hard. Both her and Grandpa did. At age 11, my parents sent me on weekends to spend the night at their house so that I could help them sell at the swap meet. We’d wake up at 5:30 in the morning. The truck was on- rumbling low- coffee scents strong in the air and I’d be squeezed in between them in the front seat of the truck. It was still dark outside. We’d arrive at the swap meet, all of us like small ants in line formation in our trucks- all of us immigrants from other places (Mexico, China, Vietnam)- trying to scrape enough dollars and cents to feed our families.

My grandmother taught me how to talk to people- all kinds of people and she taught me how to sell just about anything to anybody. “You’ve got to call them in- like this Elizabeth, ask them what they need, how you might be able to help them, look for every angle- don’t give up. When you have some down time- organize things this way. Keep your eyes open for thieves- they act quick- look at hands and don’t get distracted.” She was also an unbelievably proud grandmother- to every friend that came by to say hello she would tell them- this is my granddaughter Elizabeth- daughter of Belia. She’d spoil me with doughnuts for breakfast, fresh cherries and plums and peaches during the summers and hamburgers for lunch. They were long days and she wanted to make sure I was well fed. I remember thinking that if you added up all the money she spent on me on food throughout the day- it would have been cheaper for her to hire someone else to help!

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As a small child, I would sit at this little wooden island in her kitchen and eat pomegranates. She’d cover my clothes with a huge apron and then I went to town- red juice spilling all over my hands and mouth- never enough- there were never enough pomegranate seeds. Reader’s Digest magazines and newspapers were always scattered around her house. There was always pan dulce in the pastry dish and coffee on the kitchen counter top. Somebody was always stopping by to visit. There was always another relative I had never met before who was the cousin of so and so and then they’d go on and on about how they remembered me when I was just a small baby.

I miss those days. They were the longest days in the world and the best. I just didn’t know it then.

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On Sunday- together with my parents, sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews- all 150 of us- we will celebrate Abuelita Chelo and her 90 years, remember Abuelito Pedro. We will squeeze every single amount of life out of every minute of that day- we will eat, dance, sing, cry, remember and create new memories.

What a legacy she has created- one that is 90 years strong. Thank you Abuelita Chelo.

 

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1970’s Momma

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Me and my Momma, sometime in the late 1970’s. As we get older, I realize how much I need her more and more. When I think of her from childhood – I remember the scent of her Estee Lauder perfume, her platform heels, her style and bling. Thank you Momma for always loving me unconditionally. So grateful for that love.

Homesick

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Circa Early 1980’s.

My cousin Mimi recently sent this out in a cousins group text message we have continuously going. I have no recollection of this photo or event. Yet, here I am right smack in the middle roasting marshmallows with cousins and sisters. A glimpse of pure childhood happiness. I miss them dearly and my heart yearns for what I cannot have- they who I spent every childhood day with- as I sit here thousands of miles away. This photo and now memory I hold close.

Saying goodbye to Tia Chica

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My Tia Chica passed away last Thursday, in Mexico City. I wrote about her before in Tia Chica’s Empanadas. My sister Veronica delivered the news via text message to all us sisters. We didn’t have a lot of information about her passing but we knew that if we wanted to get a chance to pay our respects to her and see her one last time, we’d have to act quickly. In Mexico City, they do not embalm the bodies and so they bury them within 24 hours. In Tia Chica’s case it ended up being cremation but needless to say that she passed on Thursday and her rosario– viewing was an all night-vigil Thursday night and Friday morning.

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My two sisters- Nydia and Veronica along with my parents flew into Mexico City Friday. They arrived in the morning and I in the afternoon. The funeral was Friday afternoon and she was cremated Friday evening. I arrived in time to say goodbye and kiss her- glass between us- one final time. My sisters and I – we had an opportunity to thank her for all that she gave to us. We had told her before and we told her again. Still, the finality of death is shocking and we are left with knowing that we’ll never have her empanadas or cooking to nourish us, nor her sarcastic remarks, her biting humor to laugh at- everything and so much more that made her our Tia Chica.

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I am still overcome with so many emotions and since I had not visited Mexico City in 20 years and never with my parents as an adult it was a trip that I cannot yet put to words. There are so many family stories that were told to me that I had never heard and so much I never realized. That is for another post.

Look for an upcoming picture travel diary of 48 hours in Mexico City. It was an unforgettable experience that I cannot wait to share. Thank you for allowing me to share my Tia Chica.

Missing Avocados & Abuelitos

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imageThe avocado. Since moving to St. Louis, I have never appreciated the avocado as much as I do right now. Always took them for granted. In California, they are so plentiful. In St. Louis, they are rare. The other day at a deli- I asked for avocado for my sandwich and they looked at me kind of funny. Then I asked for hummus. They looked at me even funnier.

Growing up in Southern California, we had a very large avocado tree in our backyard. We had avocados all the time, pretty much year-round. My Dad loved the tree and he loved his avocados. My abuelita from Mexico City on one of her trips out to visit had literally thrown an avocado seed into the ground and then over the next 20 years, we watched that little tree grow and overtake our backyard. My abuelita passed when I was pretty young so I grew up thinking that tree was a symbol of her watching over us, even though she was physically gone.

Some of my earliest childhood memories from when I was about 3 or 4 years old, I associate with my abuelita and abuelito from Mexico City. Even though they’ve been gone for 30 plus years, there is a deep part inside me that has held on to them. The reason is because when I was that age, I went to visit and stayed with them for a full month- without my parents.

I remember.

imageFrosted flakes with a Spanish Tony the Tiger on the cover. Cafe con leche- so sweet every morning with my breakfast. Cold ceramic floors in the morning. Milk that tasted really funny. She wore an apron literally all day, every day and her hair in a braid down her back. Going with my abuelito to watch Heidi on the big screen. His love and protection. Visiting the marketplace and the food vendors. The colors. The stench. The overwhelmingness of it all. Huge blocks of cheese just sitting there. I refused to eat cheese for 10 years after this. City smells that combined diesel fumes, grit and human sweat. The zapateria that sold patent leather mary jane shoes with lace ankle socks. Honking cars, round-about intersections and busy one-way streets. You had to hold on tight or else. Mexico City in the late 1970’s – in all its glory. A four year old girl with her abuelitos. I wish they had seen me grow up. I wish I could have seen them grow old. Instead, I’m left with memories and a few photos and birthday cards. I will never forget that time, them and the person it helped me become- a lover of big cities, city grit, exotic tastes, smells, colors and people, anything foreign. A traveler of life and adventure. For all this I thank them. For I have traveled further than they could have ever imagined.

Now- can someone from California please ship me some avocados already?

Tia Chica’s Empanadas

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FullSizeRender (1)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.

FullSizeRenderThis 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 FullSizeRender (2)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. Read the rest of this entry

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From left to right- Me (age 4?), cousins Gaby and Angelica

Last night I had the most pleasant dream. I was a child again and I was in a place I have very fond memories of- my Tia Soco’s house- in my older cousins’ Angelica and Gaby’s room. It was a big room with two twin sized beds side by side filled with a lot of toys, dolls and books. The thing is I had not thought of that room in maybe 20 plus years. In my conscious state- I cannot remember or tell you what it looked like but in the dream – with my subconscious – every single detail was perfectly clear like wearing glasses or contacts when you haven’t seen clearly in so long. And I swear I dreamt it right- exactly how it used to be.  I was lying in the left sided bed – the one I think remember belonging to Angelica and I was just so darn happy. I had an overwhelming feeling of being completely free and unencumbered- no responsibilities, deadlines, not one care in the world.  A child once again. Truly that’s what being a child felt like to me and I had not felt that in so long that it completely took me over. That dream – that feeling- it sustained me all day long- I carried that feeling deep inside me. In the last few weeks my mind has been filled with lots of old childhood memories of home or what home feels like.

Spending the night at Abuelita Chelo’s house- the one on Huron Street- in either Tia Yoli or Tia Elvia’s bedrooms. Windows open with the scent of that sweet honeysuckle coming in. Thinking that there was all this stuff happening in the world but there in that little house it did not matter- anything that was mildly important was happening right there. It was the center of the universe or so it seemed. Read the rest of this entry