My Grandmother’s Tamales

My grandmother’s tamales were the best! I know this might sound biased because she’s my grandmother, but since I left my her house as a preteen, and had the privilege to taste tamales in different places since then, I have to say that hers are some of the best.

Since my family and I moved to the United States, we’ve become nostalgic of my grandmother’s tamales, which she would prepare right before Christmas Eve.  With every passing year since we left Mexico that nostalgia became stronger.  There is no doubt that food became the vehicle by which we connected with the memories of the Mexico we left behind.  Every Christmas we remembered that my grandmother used to make preparations for the tamales.  She would also make Mexican ponche (Mexican fruit punch).  Back in the day, those two items were the highlight of our Christmas in Mexico.

Tamales and ponche are two popular dishes prepared during Christmas in Mexico because of its practicality.  Despite being labor-intensive, these dishes can feed many people, especially large families.  Tamales and ponche are also prepared for Las Posadas and to offer to friends and family members who come to visit during Christmas time.

My Mom began to test her culinary skills the first year we moved to the United States.  I believe it was her way of coping with the homesickness and nostalgia of being away from Mexico.  She made tamales for the first time in her life, the second year we were settled in the U.S.  She was very pleased with how they turned out –and so was I– and continued making them from then on, every Christmas time.  I liked the way my Mom’s first tamales turned out, but the next ones were even better.  From then on, I saw how her skills for cooking Mexican food grew year after year.

“Necessity is the mother of all inventions,” and for my Mom cooking became a necessity.  At first, it was a way to cope with her feelings of longing for Mexico.  Eventually, that necessity turned into one of her best talents.

My Mom wasn’t the best cook when we lived in Mexico.  As a single Mom of two daughters, she prepared basic dishes and sometimes she would even buy prepared food from the cocinas económicas, a place ran by women cooks who made a living by preparing wholesome meals for  working moms.  The food from cocinas económicas was really good.  These women really knew how to cook and were now using their skills to provide for their families by running these kinds of establishments.

It was not until we moved to the U.S. that my mother began testing her culinary skills.  It was here in the U.S. that she began to make more labor-intensive dishes such tamales, mole, home-made tortillas, and asado de bodas.  Those are some of the most difficult Mexican dishes to prepare because of the extensive list of ingredients and the time required to prep each dish.

I also think that my Mom cooked some of my grandmother’s favorite dishes to help us cope with the change that moving to another country brought.  She didn’t express verbally how she felt about moving away from everything she once knew, but I could sense that through her cooking she expressed to us how much she cared about our feelings.

Christmas in the United States became a little more pleasant and bearable for us as we had my Mom who would prepare for us my grandmother’s favorite dishes like tamales and ponche, some of her own favorites such as mole and trusco, as well as new favorites that she discovered in the process of learning how to cook authentic Mexican food.

Now that I have a family of my own, I like to prepare my own tamales and ponche during the Christmas season.  It has become a ritual for me.  As I prepare the masa for the tamales I remember my grandmother standing behind the table of her kitchen, kneading the dough with her arms and hands.  I also remember helping my Mom make tamales for the first time in the United States, about twenty years ago.  It was just me and her talking about our memories from Mexico while we wrapped the tamales together.

Out of that same longing that I continue to have of the Christmases of long ago in Mexico and the Christmases I spent with my family after we moved away from Mexico, I began my own tradition with my own family.  Now it is me who is standing behind the table kneading masa while I share with my daughter how I learned to make tamales.

Sharing with my daughter how I learned to make tamales.
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A Summer Afternoon in Historic Downtown San Luis Potosí

In 2000, I went back to the place I used to call my hometown, San Luis Potosí.

I went back to visit friends and family although when you are young and lacking wisdom all you care about is having fun, laughing, and living in the moment.  At that time, I didn’t have the desire to spend time with my grandmother who still had good health.  I also didn’t care much about spending time with family members.

I did however, manage to spend a nice afternoon with my older cousin, the one who grew up with me from my earliest days, all the way until my family and I left the country.  I asked my cousin if she would go with me sightseeing through Historic Downtown of San Luis Potosí and she agreed.  I was always interested in history, folk stories, legends and the stories my grandmother used to tell us, she was a great storyteller.

It was a nice summer afternoon, as shown in the pictures.  Summer in this part of Mexico is dry and desert-like, similar to the pleasant weather in California here in the U.S.  The weather is so pleasant that most people choose to walk rather than use public transportation.

I wanted to take pictures of places that were important to me such as various churches, the main cathedral, the oldest university in the city, museums, theaters, and city hall.  I wanted to photograph anything that would remind me of the places I used to stroll around with my Mom and sister in those long-ago afternoons from when Mexico was still our home.  I wanted to one day look at those pictures and reminisce about the beautiful time we spent in San Luis Potosí.

I did reminisce about these particular places from time to time, whenever I leafed through my photo album.  After a while though, it remained closed for a long time.

Now when I look at these pictures, almost twenty years after I took them, I no longer look at them the same way I did before.  Now, I think more about that afternoon with my cousin and about the sort of conversations we were having, what did we talk about as we strolled around the city taking pictures? Did we get a chance to catch-up on the time that passed during those last six years apart? Did we laugh together? What stories of ourselves did we share?

Capilla de Loreto at Plaza de los Fundadores
Universidad Autónoma de San Luis Potosí in the summer of 2000

The wisdom that I have now is not mine, it comes from God, I can’t take the credit.  And what I learned from Him is that although traveling and seeking to be a cultured and well learned individual is important to some, it is more valuable to spend time with people.  People you care about, people you love, people you grew up with and are part of your most treasured memories.  This is more important to me now.

I still feel nostalgic sometimes, and reminisce about a nice afternoon strolling around Historic Downtown eating a yogurt ice cream while window shopping in the streets of San Luis Potosí.

I will go back one day and walk around the same streets and the same historic landmarks I walked that summer afternoon long ago.  This time I will appreciate the times spent with friends and family more than the buildings around me.

Templo de San Agustín in San Luis Potosí
Inside Templo de San Agustín
Templo de San Francisco – Temple of San Francisco in San Luis Potosi
Inside Templo de San Francisco

A Fond Childhood Memory of Día de los Muertos

altar for Día de los Muertos in Historic Downtown San Luis Potosí

When I lived in Mexico one of my favorite holidays, along with Christmas, was Día de los Muertos. 

The first Día de los Muertos memory that comes to mind, is getting off the public bus with my Mom at el centro or downtown square.  People go to el centro to buy specialty items such as arts and crafts, fruit and vegetables, as well as other items needed for the altar de los muertos. 

There is an old saying in Mexico: “A quien madruga Dios lo ayuda.”  The English equivalent would be, “The early bird catches the worm.”  Many Mexican business owners and blue-collar workers live their lives by this mantra.  Many street vendors, whose livelihood depends on selling goods in these open markets, work hard to stay on top of the competition.  Getting to the market early in the morning, setting up their tents and displaying their wares before anyone else, sets them apart from the rest of the businesses.

That day, standing in el centro with my Mom, was a beautiful sunny, breezy, and chilly morning. I guess it could be no different than any autumn day here in the United States with one exception.  In Mexico, fall is a season of reflection and culturally it is celebrated in a very different way.  As I write this anecdote, right in the middle of October, I am looking out the window in my home.  It feels and looks like any autumn day in Mexico.  However, here in the States, the comings and goings of people start slowing down to a trickle; everywhere there is silence and calm.  People go to work and children go to school while daylight wastes away.  Then, when daylight disappears, people hurry inside, keenly aware that the cold and windy days are announcing that autumn is in the air and it’s almost time to hibernate for the season.

In Mexico, autumn is a time for reflection, but by no means it translates into sadness or boredom.

The following is one of my anecdotes of when I was a child living in San Luis Potosí, Mexico celebrating el Día de los Muertos;

“As I got off the public bus with my Mom, holding her hand the whole time.  All of the sudden, the air around me felt alive.  I felt the energy and commotion radiating from the street vendors gathered there.  I could feel their dedication and optimism as they busied themselves setting up their tables and tents.  They came to el centro to sell all kinds of goods for grown-ups and kids alike.

There were tons of colors everywhere, spilling from every nook and cranny in the market. It came from the papel picado decorating the streets everywhere with bold colors such as bright blue, red, orange, purple, and green.  The color also spilled forth, in red and yellow hues, from the different seasonal fruits on display; calabazas (pumpkins), squash, sweet potatoes.  And of course, the market was colored as well by the incomparable and unique flor de cempasúchil, the flower that represents Día de los Muertos.

I saw calaveritas de azucar (Mexican sugar skulls); one of my favorites.  You could buy calaveritas and have the seller write your name on them – there were chocolate ones, white ones, big ones and small ones, even cute, tiny ones.

The smell of copal and of freshly-made tortillas and roasted chile from the food vendors was a feast to all of my senses.  It made me hungry as I walked around with Mom looking at the merchandise from the street vendors.  The sun-tanned women with thick and brown skin, almost as tanned as mine, looked at me with a smile.  They asked if I wanted to buy a calaverita de azucar with my name on it.  I asked my Mom if I could have one and she agreed.”

Woman with Cempasúchil Flowers
Photo Credit: Jaime Cristóbal López

Walking around the streets of Historic Downtown San Luis Potosí, or any other city or town in Mexico, during Día de los Muertos is a jolt of stimuli.  All of the senses –touch, sight, hearing, smell and taste –were stimulated at once, creating powerful, fully-fleshed memories that are easy to recall.  That is how I am able to easily go to that memory whenever I want to.  I want to keep this memory forever.

So, whenever I see a gloomy, overcast autumn day here in the US, where I now live, I close my eyes and travel down memory lane back to that mercado.  I smell, see, feel, taste, and hear in my mind the joyful moments I spent as a child during Día de los Muertos in San Luis Potosí, and I sigh with satisfaction.

Poem to my Grandmother

On October 4th my grandmother would have turned 84 years old.  I wrote this poem for her.

My Grandmother in 2014

“Dear Grandmother,

Today you would have been 84 years old

I miss being able to call you anytime I want to

I miss when you used to call me and my mother on our birthday

I miss that afternoon when as a child, I had to say goodbye to you

I miss your Mexican cooking, your white pozole and your tamales were the best

I miss when you used to rise early, like the sun, to start your day off

I miss your scolding, even your unpleasant screaming around the house has become something to miss

I miss seeing you laugh and seeing you happy

I miss hearing you sing Lola Beltran’s ranchera songs as you washed your clothes by your garden

I miss being able to knock on your terracotta painted door

I miss your house, la Casa de mi Abuelita, always waiting for me whenever I visited Mexico

I miss that playground, los Juegos, around the corner of your house where many fond childhood memories are still kept

I choose to keep these loving memories of you forever in my heart

I love you and miss you, Abuelita!”

My grandmother’s white pozole
My grandmother’s tamales

The Lost Relationship with my Far-Away Cousins

I remember the day of our kindergarten graduation, it was sometime in May 1987 in San Luis Potosí, Mexico.

Back in the days there were no digital phones with cameras and most families didn’t own a personal camera.  In those days, professional photographers were available around the school to take pictures after graduation.  It would take a couple of days to develop the pictures and then photographers would go to the family’s house and personally deliver them in exchange for their service.  This is how it was done in Mexico in the 80’s during school graduations, before disposable and digital cameras were available.

The day on my kindergarten graduation, one such photographer approached my Mom and asked her if she wanted to have a graduation picture taken.  My Mom agreed.  The photographer would usually take two pictures, one of the child and another one with the child’s family.  In my case, the photographer took one of me as I received my kindergarten diploma and then he asked my Mom who she wanted to have on the picture for the second one.  Having my cousins only a short distance away, my Mom asked us all to gather around for a picture.  I remember feeling very happy that my cousins were around at that moment.  Having a picture taken with them made this day special, one that I still remember up until this day.  My cousins loved the idea as well and they listened to my Mom’s command.  The photographer snapped the picture.

This is how one of my best childhood memories became captured in this photograph.

24 years have passed since I left my grandmother’s house, the place where I grew up with my cousins.  This is the house where I spent the early years of my childhood and so my cousins became more than just cousins, they were my cousin-sisters.  In Mexico, the term primo hermano is used to describe cousins, whose mothers are sisters or brothers and they’re brought up together in the same house.  They become more than regular cousins, almost like sisters or brothers.

We always played together despite our mothers’ quarrels and disagreements.  Sometimes our mothers wouldn’t allow us to play together because they weren’t talking to each other.  But we were just children and like most children we disregarded our mother’s wishes and still played together.

We loved playing out in the streets.  Our favorite place to play was Los Juegos or the neighborhood’s playground; a fenced, private playground just a short walk from my grandmother’s house.  We would also play outside my grandmother’s house.  Our favorite games were hopscotch, hide-and-seek, and tag as well as many other pretend plays that elementary school-age children played before the invention of iPads and video games.

Everything changed as we grew older, more so after my family and I migrated to the United States.  The long-distance, along with problems in the family, and that certain magic that a child abandons as they get older, damaged whatever relationship we had as children.

Through the following years, I always tried to visit my cousins on the few times I went back to Mexico.  But every time I went back to visit them they grew more distant towards me.  Eventually, there was not much of a relationship between us to speak of.  It was my grandmother’s passing three years ago, that moved me to reach out to them.  It was an effort to comfort one another as we came to terms with the loss of our grandmother.  That is when I realized that you cannot just go back to how things once where and pick up where you left off.  Somehow, I thought that our treasured childhood memories were enough to remind them of the relationship we used to have.  It wasn’t.

I mentioned in my tribute in my grandmother’s post, The Ones We Leave Behind, that one of “the hardest part for those of us who leave families and relatives behind in our native country in order to better our lives, is the day, the hour, the minute when we get the news that our grandmothers, grandfathers, cousins, beloved friend or family member passed away.”  But I would also like to add that another painful process is the realization of a lost relationship, not due to death (loss of them physically), but because distance and time withered the relationship.

I have lost many of these relationships as a result of migrating to another country.  Some of those relationships were lost because of distance and time, and some, like the ones with my cousins, involved other factors.  All these realizations are part of my grieving process; the grieving process of moving to another country as a child and leaving my previous life behind.

I haven’t given up on my cousins.  In my heart and mind, they remain my childhood companions and are part of some of the most treasured memories I have.

It is my hope and promise from God that I will be reunited with my far-away cousins once more, and although we might not be able to just pick up where we left off and continue the relationship we once had as children, I am certain that a new relationship with them is on its way!

My cousins from San Luis Potosí, Mexico

The Ones We Leave Behind

In June, it will be three years since my grandmother, my only grandmother passed away.

While on my way to the Smithsonian museums, a concert and a folkloric festival, I received a phone call from my Mom.  She was calling to let me know that my grandmother had passed.  Deep down inside I always knew it would be my mom calling to inform me she was gone.  At that moment, I didn’t know what to say or what to do.  I simply stopped right where I was, letting everything sink in.

That day, I simply kept going through the motions, finishing what I had originally set out to do.  I stayed until the concert ended and slowly made my way back home afterwards.  However, the fact that my grandmother was no longer on this earth started to sink in little by little.  I was not able to cry until two days later when I managed to look at her picture.  It all has been a process, three years ago I wouldn’t have been able to write about her publicly and it wasn’t until recently that I am able to do it and share this experience openly.

The hardest thing for me during this process was having to mourn her loss from a distance.  Being so far away from her, from the rest of my relatives in Mexico, made her absence in my life more pronounced.  I realized I wasn’t just grieving my grandmother’s passing, I was also grieving for the country I left behind when I moved away from San Luis Potosi all those years ago.  Her death made me realize I never gave myself time to properly grieve for the things and the people I left behind.

Back when I was little, before starting preschool, my grandmother used to take care of me while my mom was at work.  In those days, we lived in my grandma’s house from time to time. But no matter how far away from my grandmother my mom moved, I always managed to make my way back.  Whenever things wouldn’t go well with my mom, I always told myself I would just move back to my grandmother’s.  One time, I even left my mom’s house to go visit my grandmother and walked many miles, like an hour’s worth of walking, to get to her house.  Needless to say, when my mom found out where I was, she gave me quite a scolding.  But as a child I felt super confident and proud that, while being so young, I managed to safely make my way to my grandmother’s house.

In those days, my grandmother’s house was my safety blanket; the place to go to when things didn’t work out.

Everything changed after my mother, my sisters and I migrated to the U.S.  All of the sudden everything I knew was taken from me, including my grandmother’s house.  At that age, this was the hardest thing I ever had to do.

I’ll never forget when I had to say goodbye to my grandmother, how the car that we were driving in passed by her house and without stopping drove away.  The car continued it slow, sad pace as it made its way pass my neighborhood, by my new school where I had just begun to make a new group of friends, as well as by the private school where I used to fantasize about the boy I liked who went to that school and I just watched him from afar.

As we drove away I could see the railroad tracks running parallel to our car.  The railroad was the highlight and the street marker of the neighborhood where my grandmother’s house was.  I was afraid to look back because I felt if I did I would burst out crying.  Instead, I resolved to keep my eyes fixed forward.  I kept this up until I realized we were standing at a crossroad’s point, between four intersections.  To my right was the school I loved and I would miss with all of my friends.  To my left was the convenience store where people gathered around to take the public bus and find out the latest news.  Behind me was grandmother’s house, my childhood and my extended family everything I was leaving behind.  And in front was the place where the taxi was heading, the way to the central camionera or bus station which would eventually lead us to the other side, the new country where we would live, our new home.

As the taxi passed that crossroad I finally stole a quick look behind me.  That’s when it hit me, all of it at once: this was going to hurt… a lot! Leaving everything I knew and loved up to that point behind in search for something better was not going to be easy.  But what hurt me the most, I realized, would be breaking away from my grandmother’s safety blanket.

The hardest part for those of us who leave families and relatives behind in our native country in order to better our lives, is the day, the hour, the minute when we get the news that our grandmothers, grandfathers, cousins, beloved friend or family member passed away.  The grieving process is different for those of us who have to hear the news from afar and we miss out having the opportunity to spend time right there next to them, watching them get older, sharing stories with them and most importantly letting our new generation of children grow next to the older generation.  We grow apart in a land far, far away…

For many centuries, families have migrated to this country, the United States, in hopes of better futures.  They want to live the American Dream, they watch other people do it and one day, they risk everything they have and believe wholeheartedly that it can become true for them as well.  However, not many of them realize what they will have to give up in order to make this dream happen.  Yes, it can happen for you too, the American Dream, but there is always something that you have to give up, always a price to pay.

When I was brought here, I was stranded somewhere in the gulf between a young girl and an older child; one who didn’t have a saying in how or what things should be done because parents make these kinds of decisions.  But I was old enough to experience what many immigrants in the U.S. have to go through in order to survive or better their lives, to lift themselves from the conditions they were born in.

I miss my grandmother some days more than others.  She is always in my thoughts; in the Mexican food that I prepare in her honor, when I garden I feel connected to her because she used to love gardening as well.  I am no longer sad and I’m grieving properly regarding her parting all thanks to God who comforts me.

The grieving process changes as time passes and it is true what I once read about losing someone you love; “you never really get over it, but you find a way to carry it with you.”

The Point of Convergence blog is dedicated to her memory and to the memory of the country I left behind in order to make a new one my home.  It is symbolic of the place, the crossroads, where I found myself once as a child looking back realizing what I was leaving behind.

May you rest in peace Abuelita,

Your Granddaughter

Lizzeth Montejano copyrighted 2018

A Fond Memory of my Sister

An image can evoke different feelings in different people.

Every human being is a collection of different experiences.  An image of a place, say a children’s park, evokes different feelings to each person according to their own experiences.

It wasn’t until I began journaling, jotting down memories from when I was a child living in Mexico, that I noticed something interesting.  I noticed that the majority of the pictures I took during my various trips back to Mexico are of places in the Historic Downtown of San Luis Potosi; the city where I was born and raised before my family and I migrated to the U.S.

Although I haven’t been able to go back and visit Mexico as much as I would like, the few trips I have been able to make always led me back to the Historic Downtown.  I realized that I always made it a point to go to this particular place in San Luis Potosi to take pictures of the area.  These particular photos were taken in 2000, a trip I made when I was 19 years old.  While looking at these photographs, I wondered why a 19-year-old would want to take pictures of historic sites when there are other more important things while on travel.  Looking back, I feel that a typical teenager would not be interested in pictures of cathedrals, museums, theaters and such places.  Teenagers would rather spend time with friends, taking pictures of their time together and other events such as parties, but not of historic sites, right?

Teatro de La Paz – Theater of La Paz in San Luis Potosi

In the process of writing about these photos I asked myself this question: why did I take pictures of all these places?  Using writing, the photos, and dreams, God gave me the answer; I use to live near all these places! This was a fact that I had forgotten…

These are the places my mom, a single mother at the time, would take us to when she had half-days off from work.  In those days my mom worked a lot.  We walked along the Historic Downtown some afternoons, which on occasions turned to evenings.  I now recall spending many afternoons and Sundays prancing around these unforgettable places.  This is why, subconsciously at least, they became special to me.

These two photos brought back a fond memory of a Sunday afternoon with my mom and younger sister.

“We were strolling around the Historic Downtown – the folkloric music that played every Sunday around the plazas was typical of those days in San Luis Potosi.  Back then, Sundays were special days, when families took the time to spend it together.  Everyone took their children to the plazas and bought them cotton candy and came to watch the various live cultural shows that took place after morning mass.  Older people spent their days sitting on the benches, watching people pass by or spending time in the afternoons.  The joyous laughter of children at play would touch the hearts of older folks, bringing in turn a childish smile to their faces; as if they were reliving their childhood memories through the children’s plays.

Some people would come to sit and feed uncooked rice to the doves.  The image of twenty or thirty black, beige, and brown doves surrounding a bench crowding around the person feeding them, became a pleasurable memory forever etched in my mind.

In one of those Sunday afternoons, my mother, sister and I walked by one of those people feeding the doves.  At the time, he was surrounded in what looked like a living blanket of feathers.  My little sister cheerfully ran towards the gathered doves wanting to catch them.  She tried holding on to as many as she could, scaring the poor doves in the process, causing them to fly away.  My mom and I just smiled at each other”

I now know these are the happy moments I had to leave behind because there was no room left in my suitcase.  Rediscovering these lost memories connected me to my place of origin, reminding me that no matter where I go or how far I travel, San Luis Potosi is just a photograph and a memory away.

Templo de Nuestra Señora del Carmen – Temple of our Lady of Carmen
Catedral de San Luis Potosí – San Luis Potosi Cathedral
Templo de San Francisco – Temple of San Francisco in San Luis Potosi
Jardín de San Francisco – San Francisco Garden