When I was six years old I was surprised when my mother announced that we were moving back home to Panamá -it never occurred to me that I wasn’t Puerto Rican. Puerto Rico was the only place I thought of as home. Moving back home required many adjustments, especially linguistic ones: mantecados were helados, limbers were duros, chinas were naranjas and piraguas were raspados. I adjusted and learned how to be more Panamanian with the help of my new friends who helped me learn the proper names of things. This was a significant event because it combined two things that have shaped my life: the love of food and the love of language.
By the time I was a teenager I was attending high school in New York and Philadelphia – where everything had a different name and taste. I longed for the comfort of juicy tropical fruits, the fun of frituras (patacones, hojaldras, chicharrón, carimañolas, tortillas panameñas –similar to an arepa but with an intense corn flavor), and the food I associated with the holidays like tamales and bacalao. My Latin American food universe was confined to the Caribbean, with two distinct (bad) impressions on Mexican food:
- Putting tacos together at a family dinner in New York (taco shells, ground beef with taco seasoning, chopped tomatoes, shredded lettuce, shredded cheddar and sour cream. I cringe as I write this … )
- For my high school graduation we went to eat enchiladas –a stressful event because I was wearing a white dress.
The lesson I took away was that I didn’t like taco seasoning, or sour cream, and I should never wear white while eating.
When I went to college in a little town in Pennsylvania I was re-introduced to Mexican food. Let me rephrase that: I was introduced to Western Pennsylvania’s idea of Mexican food: ground beef burritos with sour cream and industrial tasting cheddar cheese, dried out, over fried, over stuffed chimichangas, and the aforementioned tacos. Food that was hard to eat, and without any flavor. By the time I was eighteen I was certain that I did not like Mexican food. Two years later I transferred to San Diego State University, and I was determined to stay away from Mexican food -my two favorite hangouts were a Spanish restaurant and a Cuban place.
But little by little I was lured into islands of culinary joy: “I don’t like Mexican food but these enchiladas are good. I don’t like Mexican food but pozole is delicious. I don’t like Mexican food but…” I was introduced to capirotada, champurrado, chilaquiles, and I loved it all.
I was falling in love: San Diego’s Mexican food was so much more flavorful than the one I had experienced in Pennsylvania, and I had been embraced by a group of Tijuanenses and Sinaloenses with fantastic generosity and the patience of saints who explained to an escuincla babosa the most basic things about their cuisine, and most importantly, how it was used to express love.
The first Mexican cookbook I bought was México: the Beautiful Cookbook, beautifully photographed by Ignacio Urquiza (LOVE him) –I had never seen such gorgeous pictures of food before. This was the most expensive book I had bought, it cost me about 50.00 dollars and I saved up for it. I would go to the store and look at it, imagining all the scenarios in which I would re-create the recipes, and impress my friends while I convinced myself that it was an investment. That was 21 years ago, and it’s still my favorite book; I love all its rips, stains, notes, and it has accompanied me in every significant event in my life since. Today I have a Mexican cookbook collection of about 40 books that I keep in my tiny kitchen in two bookcases for easy reference and access.
I earn a living teaching Spanish grammar, literature and conversation in a small college in Southern California, and it’s shocking how little my students know about our neighbor. Tijuana is 20 minutes away and many have never set foot there. When I first began teaching the cultural emphasis of my classes was Caribbean culture, but the more I traveled to México, the more I wanted to share with my students its richness and diversity.
Above all, I love how México brings out my adventurous side: I won’t eat salmon, but I was delighted to try escamoles in Tula, pox in Chiapas on a rainy Sunday afternoon in a small hut and chapulines in Cholula. I have traveled to 19 states in México and with each new experience I want to create a new course about it.
In my first semester classes the cultural component touches upon basic pre-Hispanic life, the Spanish Conquest, and the Hacienda system. In my second semester we concentrate on culinary México and the history of the Mexicas (Aztecs) and Mayas. In my third semester we explore the Porfiriato and work on a semester long project where we pretend to be living in México and look for jobs, apartments, etc. This arrangement satisfies my love of food, language and history!
I often find myself cooking dishes like chiles en nogada, and mole poblano until late in the night or driving to bakeries at five a.m. for freshly baked pan dulce or having class in a restaurant to make the cultural experience tangible –even though I am not sure if my students always appreciate my efforts!
It’s very encouraging to see how much more popular authentic Mexican food and ingredients are becoming in the area: it’s easier to buy chía, pre-cut nopalitos and fresh epazote at the local supermarket and when I’m lucky I find flor de calabaza (at very high prices) at the farmer’s market.
When I came to San Diego my intention was to move back to the East Coast when I finished college, but the more immersed I became in Mexican food, culture, history, and its people, I knew that I couldn’t live anywhere else in the United States. We are fortunate in San Diego because we have easy access to México, and can participate in many cultural events here and across the border.
Gugui Naters Amador