June 29, 2011

9 in, 9 out, and Northward Bound

A little over a week ago, my baby girl was nine months old. The date held a lot of significance for me, whether it was because she'd spent an equal amount of time in the womb and out of the womb, because all the pregnancy fitness magazines say you should expect it to take at least that long for you to get your pre-pregnancy body back (I don't quite), or that she's got one more season to go til she's a year old.

Enthused by the auspicious-feeling date, I told Margo it was high time we pulled that placenta we'd saved from the birth, which had been hiding out in the freezer ever since. You may not have known that some cultures consider the placenta a deceased twin. Or that there's a Chinese medicine custom of consuming it in capsules for post-partum or menopausal complaints. Many people give no thought to the fact that many placentas simply fall down trash chutes after birth. Whereas we didn't feel quite the same as the traditional cultures do about our placenta, we also didn't have such little regard for it as to let it get hauled off to the garbage.

So we settled for something in the middle. We said a few words and planted it under a tree in our yard. When I told my midwife friend in San Miguel, whose website was where I learned about the above customs, she said "Cool!" When I told my mom, she said, "Ohhh." (Or was it "eww"?) But no matter—it was our idea that it'd nourish a beautiful mesquite that the baby will someday climb in when she is older. So literally, it will help her put down roots in what's a new land for her maternal lineage (I was fourth-generation Northern Forest girl, she is a first-generation Semidesierto Queretana).

Now that that's out of the way, we're ready to show that we're both big girls. The baby and I will be flying up by ourselves to go visit her grandparents in those verdant landscapes of Upstate New York. I must put aside my misgivings about having to travel without her father, of having this ongoing, frustrating status as a binational family without certain rights and privileges. Although it's impossible for the bitterness to disappear entirely, I will have to find a way to enjoy my time there, for my daughter's sake. She must meet her northern great-grandmother, her uncle, great-aunts and uncles. I want to introduce her to the land where I grew up, where I was inspired to become an ecologist and a teacher. I want to do it with enough gusto to convince her too that it is worth continuing to dream about returning to someday, as an entire family. I pray that the universe will conspire to help me pull it off, because God knows it's not just about me.

June 10, 2011

Un hombre verdadero

A couple weeks ago I saw a post claiming that a study in Michoacan, Mexico revealed that 40% of the middle school girls in that state wished they had a narco for a boyfriend. Wow, I thought, how messed up is that? I can't comment much on this reference to the article, which criticizes education and media policy's role in this type of problem. First of all, I'm not yet a citizen, so it's not my moral or legal place to do so. I also don't feel like I've been here long enough to make in-depth analyses about what's uniquely dysfunctional about Mexico, especially considering how my own country is embarassingly involved with their illicit affairs. 

But that doesn't mean it doesn't get me thinking and talking it over with folks here. When I brought it up at the dinner table with my husband and another native of Queretaro, we agreed that while it's a difficult problem with complex causes; ignorance, misguided priorities, and lack of self-respect are to blame. I'm not here to question certain Mexican girls' aspirations—if what they want is money for fake nails and gold hoops at whatever cost, that's their prerogative. I certainly will be doing my best to inculcate values in my daughter to allow her to see broader horizons, and I feel for the families that are helpless to steer their kids in a different direction, that is if they aren't also caught up in the same game.

Articles like this get to me because they just add credence to the notion that Mexico is the pits, as if there's nothing else going on but narcos and tequila. Perhaps more importantly, it overlooks the fact that there are a lot of people here who have more important things to be worried about, such as working in legitimate professions, raising their children to be productive members of society. That's the Mexico I know and love, especially the one that's proud of itself and its roots.

No one inspires me more in that regard than my husband. Although he was subject to the same type of poverty (if not worse) as the young women so inclined to love narcos, he managed to escape that lifestyle. As the ninth son of fourteen in a farming family, he had to shove off from school to help his dad with his herd of cows. In the barrio where he grew up, there were plenty of opportunities to become an alcoholic or glue addict, but although he hung with many young men who got sucked in, he always refused to partake. While he wasn't an angel in his youth, one thing he did not do was fall victim to the illusion that intoxicants (or selling them) were the way to success in life. Ten years ago, when we first began dating, after hearing the stories he'd tell me about his youth, I was amazed he turned out as he did. To the present day, I am still impressed (sometimes exasperated) with how straight and narrow he is, simply concerned about making a clean living, caring for his family, and enjoying the best that life has to offer. I feel fortunate to have such a great partner.

When I ask myself (or him) what was that allowed him to resist the degrading forces that so many other youth succumb to, the only thing that really stands out is his fierce individualism, and level of self-respect. Having grown up on the land, working it with his bare hands, he is humble in an earthy sort of way, but he has this unashamed attitude about his roots—mestizo, campesino, moreno, whatever—he is proud of who he is, and doesn't want to be someone else.

These mamis don't need narcos for a good time
Last week we were at a festival of local indigenous dance troupes. It was the Celebration of the National Day of the Chichimec Dancers, and it was our daughter's first attendance at an event like this. It's rare to see fairly authentic events such as these (at least in Queretaro state), but they are glorious to behold when they happen. The incredible talent, gorgeous costumes, obvious adoration of ancient customs (Aztec, in the case of the local troupe we saw) left me feeling inspired for what is still held sacred here. It seems as if more "native pride" kind of events could go a long way toward rebuilding Mexico's reputation which has been taking a beating in the media lately.

But that might be a bold statement coming from a foreigner, since things aren't quite the same here as they are where I'm from. My husband and I first talked about this when we met in the U.S., and I asked him what tribe his ancestors were from—he was sporting long, black hair at the time, and with that and his dark cinnamon skin, it was obvious that he was of indigenous heritage. "I'm not really sure," he had responded. But he saw all the ethnic and cultural pride that many people have in the U.S.—be it Asian, gay, black, Native American, or Irish—the results of the Civil Rights movement are evident to a person from a country where that same movement hasn't yet occurred. I was shocked when I found out many Mexicans don't embrace their ancestry.  He explained that "many people in Mexico consider indio an insult, because they think it means ignorant. But I'm not ashamed to be indio, that's who I am," he said. Thank god, I thought, because I want to raise my daughter to be proud of her roots.

There are plenty of things that frustrate him about his home country. But that doesn't mean he will trade in his integrity for bling, or his morality for a shiny new truck. With one foot planted firmly in the past, the other in the future, and his head squarely on his shoulders in the present, he'll keep putting his nose to the grindstone to "sacarnos adelante" however modest this chapter of our life might be. I asked him "what's left of the Aztecs now?" on our way home from the dances. "The food, the plants...the land," he answered wistfully. I'd add, real men like you, baby—"hombres verdaderos." Happy Birthday mi amor.

June 6, 2011

Nachos: what came first, the dish or the chile slice?

I'm trying to have one of those ah-hah moments but it still isn't quite clear. 

What comes to mind when you think of the word nacho? If you're like me, you think of that appetizer dish served at Mexican restaurants; of tortilla chips with melted cheese and slices of jalapeño chile peppers on top. Well, we're not alone, most English dictionaries have that definition for nachos as well. Even the Spanish language dictionaries include that meaning of nachos, although many online references are translations of English search engines. Only the Real Academia Española dictionary has a different definition of nacho, as in a "flat nose" like that referred to with the word chato: nacho, cha. (Del lat. nasus, nariz). 1. adj. rur. Ast. chato (de nariz poco prominente). U. t. c. s. Which brings me to the reason why I ask this question anyways.

On Saturday I decided to make a pizza but we were out and we were missing some essential toppings at home, and so on our way home I asked Margo to stop off at the convenience store to pick up a couple things. It was late and I'd be making it while putting the baby to bed so I broke down and got a few canned things—sliced jalapeños and mushrooms. In the canned food aisle, chiles come in many presentations. Whole, pureed in salsa, diced in salsa, rajas, and, NACHOS. Here's where I got confused. I always thought of nachos as the above appetizer. Here the can was saying "nachos de chiles," in other words, referring to the nachos as a type of crosswise-sliced chile. As opposed to rajas, which are sliced longish and lengthwise.

Now I'm pretty sure that nachos without sliced chiles probably isn't an authentic dish (forget the movie theatre version). So next time you order that dish, just know that if it doesn't include the chiles, it ain't the real thing. But I got to wondering if maybe this cut of chile, the one that's most often used for the appetizer, is how the dish got its name, or if it's the other way around. I wasn't able to find much clarification online. I think a Spanish language scholar, or ethnoculinarist of Mexican food is my only hope at this point. 

In any case, the nacho-sliced  jalapeños tasted just the same as the whole or the rajas, which is to say "bien picante."  The pizza was a hit.

June 3, 2011

Change of Scenery

Why did the roadrunner cross the road? To get to the birdbath, of course. Like Wily Coyote, my nose was shocked out of a book (a journal from 2003) by a roadrunner recently. No, it didn't come up and rub noses with me, but rather, Margo said, the roadrunner was in our yard. I was shocked because it's been a loooong time since there's been one in our yard. When we first built the house, he/she quickly found the "birdbath" I'd stashed at the base of a mesquite tree; the bottom cutoff third of a 5 gallon bucket filled with some rocks and water. The roadrunner, to my delight, wasn't the only regular fixture at the watering hole, although most of the birds didn't really settle in and ramp up their presence until construction was over a year later.

Unfortunately, one of the local customs here is to wall off entire properties with brick walls. Although I expressed that I wasn't too keen on that idea for our house (I don't like fences and borders in general—ask me why later) since we live on a shared ranch with several other in-laws, I was kind of outnumbered. Now, four years later, ground-bound animals like the roadrunner and snakes aren't as likely visitors anymore. So I was pleasantly surprised when Margo reported he'd found his way to our yard, and again when I saw him tooling around in the vacant lot behind our house from our bathroom window the other day. Miracle or not that he's still hanging around, I can't help but wonder just how long he/she'll be able to hang around the neighborhood. It's not that I'm particularly cynical, but I've got firsthand testimony about just how much things have changed here, in a fairly short period of time.

The other day we were running our weekly errands down in the commercial district with the baby. It was one of those particularly hot May days (May's the hottest month here til' the cold, high elevation rains arrive in the summer), the temperature needle pushing 100. Weekly shopping is always like an endurance event, mainly because we're so cheap and choosy that we need to go to like 4 different stores to get everything we need at the lowest possible price. El "Tepe" (the local marketplace), Comercial Mexicana (the Mexican version of P&C), Organica or La Bodeguita (the only 2 organic produce shops I've found so far on the north side of town—though I've heard more are popping up downtown, it's a pain to get in and out), and Costco (oh yeah). We were almost done, and the baby had fallen asleep in her carseat, but I'd forgotten a drink and a snack, and as those of you who've breastfed know, if a nursing mother gets hungry, watch out.

I hate being in this kind of position—I'm more a slow food than a fast food person, as my last friend who visited (Cristin) pointed out—I'd rather get low blood sugar and wait to get home and make a meal at home than go stand in a line to satisfy my craving and waste my precious greenbacks. But by this time, I was already pushing cranky with one more shopping stop to go, and the line was way too long for a salad at Costco, so I did something I am ashamed to admit on the Internet (especially if my family reads this—ha, you guys can lambaste me later), I WENT TO THE MCDONALDS DRIVE-THROUGH.

Margo was driving, I was between him and the baby in the Toyota. Pulling up to the order mike, he was like, so, what do I do? I told him what to say: Two sundaes. Chocolate. With peanuts. He repeated after me. We pulled up to the window to pay. He turned to me and said, I can't believe people do this. What do you mean, I said. This is so lazy, he sputtered. Is this your first time, I asked, stunned. Well, yeah, why would I ever come here, he answered. I sat chewing this over. Although it was only my 4th time in 4 and a half years at a McDonalds (2 other times were for sundaes, by myself, and once was for an ice tea with my parents in North Carolina), I couldn't help but feel sad that I'd somehow tainted Margo by bringing him to a McDonald's drive through. Sitting there eating our sundaes, though, I felt a bit better. He was liking his too. See, it's not that bad, if you go just once in a while, I said, trying to assuage my guilt. He sat pensive, we were sitting in the parking lot under a mesquite. The rushing traffic of the Bernardo Quintana boulevard was directly to our right, and the gigantic Costco parking lot stretched out like a couple football fields before us.

He started talking about how this parking lot used to be a huge field filled with pirul and mesquite trees and how he used to bring the cows here to pasture. When he tells me other things about those days, I  marvel at how much things have changed in the last 30 years. It's not unlike how many tracts of land up in the U.S. get turned into suburban sprawl in 5 years flat, but it seems even more accelerated on the outskirts of town here these days. Some consider it encroachment from Mexico City, but it probably has a lot to do with a lot of families like Margo's generation, who had 10+ kid families.  Looking at the baby to my right, I couldn't help but wonder, how much will things change in the next thirty?

Back at our house, they recently finished the first building in the zone directly behind our home. It's a construction supplies warehouse, and it's somewhere in the realm of 70' long and 50' high, uphill of us at an elevation approximately that of our second floor. The entire enormous rear wall is painted white and emblazoned with the message "Cemento Tolteca Extra, Reduce Grietas Hasta un 50%" in red, blue, and green. When you pull into the ranch property, now before you see anything else, you see the sign "Grupo Santa Andrea" first thing  framed against the bright blue sky. My father-in-law laughed when I told him I wasn't too hot on the new billboard in our backyard. He said he used to see the mountains and the planes landing at the nearby airport from the bed inside the house when he woke up in the morning, but now he sees his other son's house. Change can often be a good thing, but sometimes it just depends on your perspective. For those of us who haven't been around as long as Don Lupe, or haven't paid much attention to our surroundings, we might not notice all the changes in scenery but they are happening with every breath.