Archive | July, 2014

“Authentic” Mexican Recipes- Southern Oaxaca Style

27 Jul

There ain’t no chimichangas around here, as Conan would be the first to tell you. There are no burritos, either, nor do most of the things on your “authentic” Mexican restaurant menu taste like that down here, which is generally a big improvement. (Although I admit, I kind of miss U.S.-style-Mexican-restaurant chiles rellenos, for their cheapness and accessibility if nothing else.) I don’t normally dedicate this blog space to recipes, but lately a couple people have been asking me about salsas and beans, and I thought I could spare some time to share the deliciousness. 

Food down here in Mexico is very regional. For example, people cook a sauce called mole (pronounced moh-leh) in many different states (yes, Mexico also is the United States- of Mexico), but the color and the flavor is very different in each of those places. Food also tends to be extremely fresh and made from scratch, which changes the flavor greatly, as my mom’s partner Dee can tell you, he who is an extremely picky eater but who eats just about anything my mother-in-law, Paulina, puts on the table down here. My best friend Holly will also attest to the from-scratch difference, now that she’s a convert who can’t stand those packaged, reheated corn circles they sell you up there. “Let’s just call them wraps,” she says, frustrated, “because they’re nothing like real corn tortillas. You’ve ruined me,” she says, only a little disappointed, because just the memory of the flavor lasts a good long while. (And here in Oaxaca, tortillas are almost always made from corn, except in tourist places.)

Now, the serving of beans as the accompaniment to just about any meal is based on reality down here. The amount and frequency of bean consumption is pretty impressive; beans accompany nearly any meal nearly any day of the week. They are usually black beans, though; I’ve rarely even seen pinto beans down here. Black beans are a good source of iron, protein, and fiber, fyi, so having them regularly is pretty smart. Sometimes they are just cooked with plenty of broth, like a soup almost. Sometimes they can be a main course- like when you make enfrijoladas, a fried-tortilla and bean dish. You can buy beans that’ve been ground and roasted, called frijol molido,that you just have to cook with some oil and water (the closest thing to fast food around!). Sometimes beans are cooked and then fried (I don’t know why they’re called “refried” there- I guess so you know they’ve been cooked before frying?), which is so delicious and oh-so-easy. And I’m going to give you my mother-in-law’s recipe because I don’t want to hear about you buying canned refried beans ever again. If you want to buy canned beans, so be it- I understand there’s not always time to cook dry beans. But making your own “refried” beans is very fast and totally worth it. Here’s how:

-Oil for frying
-Beans (black, pinto, kidney- just about any beans will do although black beans are my favorite- can be canned or cooked from dry)
-Onion (approx. 1/4 onion)
-Garlic (2 medium cloves)
-Cilantro or Epazote or Hoja de Aguacate (Avocado Leaf?) (optional). Cilantro is pretty easy to
get fresh but epazote might be a bit more challenging. Hoja de Aguacate you can probably find in your local Mexican store in dry form, which works just fine. This is just for added seasoning and is not necessary (but will add to the deliciousness).

Put 1/2 inch oil in the bottom of your pan (fairly large skillet) and heat on medium heat. Cut onion into fairly large pieces- it’s not important how you cut it or that it be small, just not one big chunk. Add onion to hot oil, moving occasionally, until it is browned and somewhat burnt. Remove onion from pan and throw it out. Now, this serves the purpose of giving the oil the flavor of cooked onion without having the onion in there. If you are very partial to having chunks of onion, cut the onion in the size you’d like to eat, and don’t fry it quite so much.
Add chopped garlic to the oil, frying for just a minute or two, moving frequently so it doesn’t burn. Then add the beans along with some of the broth from the beans. How much? It doesn’t matter too much- one or two cans of beans, about 3 cups of cooked beans, enough liquid to make it a little soupy looking at first. Turn up the heat a little.
Add in some salt to taste and any other seasoning (cilantro, etc.). Then mash the beans! You can use a potato masher if you have one, or use the bottom of a cup (heavy plastic or very solid glass like a coffee mug- don’t get too excited if you’re using glass!). You don’t have to mash them into oblivion- the idea is just that the beans soak up the yummy oniony-oily-garlicky flavor. Stir them some and let them cook a bit, too, so most of the liquid gets evaporated/mashed with the beans. They don’t have to cook for very long, you can cook them till you get the consistency you want. This is why the amount of liquid doesn’t need to be exact- if you put in too much you just let them cook a little longer. And voila! Ready to serve.

Now, another fabulous thing about food here in Oaxaca is that it’s not all spicy, but there is almost always salsa of some sort or another. Salsa really just means sauce and there are many, many, many different kinds, depending on what kind of chile pepper you use, how you cook it (roasted, boiled, etc.), how you process it (chopped up, in a blender, hand-ground), what other ingredients you use (tomato, lime, onion, garlic, and much more). I initially wanted to do a blog piece on salsa recipes, but realized it could take me weeks to write down the ones I know. So I decided to stick to my favorite salsa, which I now use (thanks again to Paulina) for one of my favorite Mexican foods (also the BEST hangover food ever), chilaquiles (pronounced chee-luh-keel-ehs).


chilaquiles finished product, served with over-easy eggs, avocado, diced onion and queso fresco on top, sour cream if desired… grease and spice and carbs and protein and fat, perfect to get you going after a night on the town

The bad news is this salsa is best made with a chile that I think is hard to get in the U.S., at least in Kentucky, which is not a hot-bed of Oaxacan immigrants, like, say California is. The chile is called chile costeño (coastal chile), but I think that you can substitute something like chile de arbol, a nice red dry chile with good flavor and decent spice (and you can definitely find chile de arbol at your local Mexican store- you can even find it at Valumarket if you live in Louisville). Cayenne could work, too, but I think it’s a bit hotter than chile costeño, so be careful if you decide to substitute with that! And really you can use any hot pepper that you so desire for chilaquiles (before moving down here I made them with a jalepeño and tomato salsa- it works, but it’s not as good as this). So, here it is:

For salsa:
-chile costeño or chile de arbol or whatever hot pepper you’re going to use (How much? Haven’t you realized by now that I hate measuring? If you’re using it for chilaquiles you need several handfuls, if you just want to drizzle some on some other food you can use a bit less, although this salsa will hold up well for a good long while since it’s pretty much just hot peppers.)
-3 cloves garlic, or less if not using as many chiles
-salt to taste

Yep that’s it! It’s pretty much pure chile salsa with some garlic. Yum.

costeño salsa

Roast your chiles in a dry frying pan (or on a comal/griddle if you have one). Open all your windows before doing this because it will make you cough your lung out if you’re just standing there in front of the roasting chile. Move them around a bit so they toast on both sides. If it gets a little black that’s okay, you just don’t want to burn it down to ashes.
comalmy comal, still with chile seeds on it

2. Soak the chiles in water for a little bit so they get softer and easier to grind up in the blender. Put the garlic, some salt, and chiles in the blender with just a little bit of water. You want enough water to be able to blend it, but not much more or it won’t turn out. Blend until well pureed- ideally you want even the seeds blended in there well (which would take all day with my hand-cranked blender, but ye who have electricity have no excuse). Check the amount of salt and you’re finished.

chile costeño soaking

For chilaquiles:
Chilaquiles is a dish in the same vein as french toast; the idea is to re-purpose ingredients when they’re no longer at their peak but before they’ve gone bad. Instead of bread, you’re salvaging corn tortillas once you’ve already reheated them and they’re not soft and pliable anymore. So, yes, you can do like Mexican restaurants in Kentucky do and just use tortilla chips, but that defeats the purpose and it just doesn’t taste as good. When I lived in Kentucky, I would put my leftover tortillas (the extra ones I’d heated up for a meal but nobody got to) in a bag in the back of my fridge until I had 8-10 tortillas (good for 2-3 people, depending on size of tortilla and hunger level). You can also use a fresh package of tortillas- they don’t have to be stale tortillas, especially since it’s not like the ones you’re buying at the store there are super fresh to begin with. Here’s what else you need.

-tortillas (for taco-sized tortillas, count on maybe 4-5 per person?)
-salsa (see above)
-oil for frying

(for serving, optional but highly recommended):
-chopped red onion
-chopped cilantro (optional)
-queso fresco (or any cheese will do, but this is our preference- available at Mexican stores and many other grocery stores. However, some queso frescos are not so delicious- in that case it’s better to just get some jack cheese or some other mild equivalent.)
-sour cream (especially helpful for calming down the spiciness)
-eggs or other preferred protein accompaniment

(Yikes, I just made these for breakfast and already want them again. Writing is so hard!)

1.    Fry tortillas in a decent amount of oil. This is not a breakfast for dieting. You will probably need to fry them one or two at a time so they brown well on both sides.
Heat the salsa in a large pan. You can add in a tiny bit more oil and a little bit more water, depending on the consistency of the salsa. Add in tortillas one at a time, flipping them in the salsa so that they’re well coated. You can break them into pieces as you put them in, or they usually break up pretty well on their own as you stir them around. Do not add in too many tortillas if you don’t have enough salsa- if your tortillas are dry the dish is no good. Better to either make more salsa or use fewer tortillas- better to add more accompaniments to the dish than have gross chilaquiles.

chilaquiles in the potfried tortillas mixed with the salsa

2.    Let the tortillas cook and soak up the salsa for a couple minutes (not too long or they’ll dry out) and you’re good to go. Fry up your eggs, get all the other bits and pieces on the table and you’re ready to eat. Don’t forget to invite Conan and me over!

A Little Bit of Nothing with a Touch of Everything (Perspectives on Having and Not)

20 Jul

“We don’t have a vehicle, we don’t have electricity, we don’t have anything,” (“no tenemos nada” because you get to double your negatives in Spanish) I announced, pouting like my two year old, and was immediately ashamed of myself. I was in my great big house (well, big for most Mexican families in Puerto) with my daughter and my husband and my gas stove that had plenty of gas, wearing clothes with more hanging on the rack, in my house with a kajillion toys for Lucia, and a bicycle, me with my full time job with benefits, in a safe and secure environment (except for those pesky neighborhood dogs, maybe) and, well, you get the idea. It could hardly be said that we’ve got nothing. 


Plus I was ashamed because I was saying it to one of Conan’s aunts who I happen to know had it a million times rougher when she was my age. She didn’t have electricity or running water. She took her four kids to the river every day to bathe and wash clothes and diapers. She cooked with firewood she brought home. Her husband drank all the extra money, and sometimes the money that was for food, too. And I’m pretty sure she still didn’t go around pouting about not having anything. 


But it was too late to unsay my words, and I was still too frustrated and flustered about the trash situation to fix my blunder. While it’s not true that we don’t have anything, we are living with a lack of goods and services that is sometimes overwhelming, especially because it’s so much more expensive to be poor in this way. 


What had me crazy for the moment was our having taken our trash out for a ride twice without being able to dump it. There’s no trash pickup on our block, so we’ve been accumulating trash in our garage for too long now. It’s difficult to convince somebody we know with a truck to come by and take our trash to the dump, but we’ve done it recently, twice in fact. To no avail. The first time the dump was closed because it was Sunday (although sometimes they’re open on Sundays). This time there was no reason for it to not get taken care of. Except I forgot where we are, and that it’s always possible for something to not be taken care of. So this time the dump was blocked due to protests- no, not the ever-striking teachers this time- some other group for some other political reason. All I know is that two or three months of trash (not food, thank goodness; we compost) returned to my garage, much to my dismay. I felt helpless, unable to accomplish what should be such a simple thing. But nothing is simple here, and even though I’m usually thrilled to be here anyway, sometimes it’s maddening.


People on our block mostly burn their trash, which is not only bad for the environment and our health, but only partially effective. You still end up with a big black pile of stuff that doesn’t disappear, like the aerosol cans of mosquito spray, a pile which attracts more mosquitos and is unsightly, among other things. Burning all that plastic and diapers and- ugh, the smell, and some nights it seems half of Puerto is aflame, big clouds of smoke billowing from all four directions. But what do we do? I’m sure we are attracting rats and all kinds of other pests with this ever-growing pile of trash, but where can we go with it, with no vehicle and some bad luck on our last two attempts?


And the trash is only one of our struggles for basic things that you probably take for granted, that I used to take for granted. Of course without electricity we don’t have lights at night, but that is not one of our biggest issues. We’ve got a couple battery-powered lamps and a couple more rechargeable lamps we recharge at friends’ or family’s houses when we can. The really big deals for me are 1) the refrigerator, and 2) the washing machine, or the lack thereof. 

With the fridge, we get around it more or less with a lot of extra work and a lot of extra money. We buy ice and put it in a broken fridge that we use as a cooler. Just to buy bags of ice is really expensive, plus it only lasts a day, if that. We can buy a huge bag that half fills our fridge for 30 pesos (less than 3 USD, but remember we don’t earn dollars) but because we have no car, going to get it involves getting a ride or borrowing somebody’s car, usually putting gas in it, etc. It is time-consuming, expensive, and totally inconvenient. We spend more on ice every month than an entire normal electric bill. 


The laundry situation is pretty similar. We can wash for free by hand here at the house, but it’s very labor-intensive and very time-consuming, with clothes and sheets and towels and all that for the three of us. We can take the clothes to a family member’s house and use their washing machine, but by the time we transport it there and transport the wet clothes back it’s about as much time and a little more money than washing by hand at home. We can take the clothes to a laundromat (where they wash them for you- that’s how it’s done around here) but it’s pretty expensive and there’s still the issue of getting the clothes there and back. And the worst part is we already own a wonderful washing machine in Juqulia, that would take a really large generator to run, which we don’t have. 


And then there are all these other annoyingly inconvenient things. Like the total inability to iron something I need to wear to work. Don’t get me wrong, I passionately hate ironing. But when it’s iron versus rewash and rehang something, give me the damn iron. Nope, not an option. 


The lack of fans is really killer when it’s crazy hot and humid and the wind decides to die completely. I love hot weather, especially because I can’t stand the cold, so I try very hard to not complain about it. But some moments I am convinced that all I want out of life is a fan in my face. 


And why don’t we have electricity? Let me be clear: we are not those folks who set out to build a log cabin and live away from all civilization, off the grid, sticking it to the man, or whatever. No, thank you. I want at-home internet! And ceiling fans (or any fans), and ice for my tea that I get straight from a freezer inside my very own house. And no, we don’t live out in the country by any stretch. We live in a large town, in a neighborhood right behind the big public university (which does have electricity, of course.) All around us there is electricity. Just not on our block. 


We don’t have electricity because we live in an alternate universe from the U.S., and the electric company just doesn’t work the same. Instead of going ahead and setting things up for electricity in areas that are developing, knowing they will profit from folks using the electricity sooner or later, they wait and wait and wait and make the now-desperate inhabitants of those areas pay for the set-up of electricity. So our block is in that process- getting quotes for how much they will charge us, rejecting them, trying to set up deals, asking for help from the government. It sure is a slow process. At the moment, there is no electricity date in sight for our house. 


Meanwhile, we have a survival plan, a plan to try to be a bit more like those folks sticking it to the man, a plan that doesn’t involve waiting around for the electric company. The fridge situation is half-taken care of (okay, still not convenient at all, but less expensive.) Paulina sent down her extra fridge which we’ve got running at one of Conan’s cousin’s houses (about a 15 minute walk away) so we can fill big water bottles with water to make ice for our “fridge”. We’re going to buy a large generator to run our washing machine and other odds and ends which are too much for solar energy. And we’re going to buy a solar panel which can hopefully help us run a fan and some other necessities that aren’t all the time. (It’s nearly impossible, unfortunately, to run a regular refrigerator on solar power). But all of these things take lots of money, and time to see where to buy them. If we want budget-priced solar panels we need to get them from Mexico City, for example. We don’t even know about the generator yet. I haven’t been at my job for long, so saving is also it’s own slow process. Like always, our life is a work-in-progress. 


I know it’s going to get better, to get simpler, and cheaper, and easier. And I know our life is far from all-bad at this point, even as things stand. I know I’ll never take basic services like trash pick-up and electricity for granted, ever again. I know I have a lot to be grateful for already. 


But I also think that it’s okay to feel whatever we feel, and that I need to give myself permission to feel overwhelmed, or desperate, or angry when that’s what I feel. I don’t think that has to negate all my other moments of happiness, of gratitude, of optimism. Maybe the way I expressed it the other day made me look like a tantrum-y brat, but I hope that Conan’s family knows me well enough by now to know that’s only a moment, that it’s not the whole Julia-package. And I think it’s important even to stay a little angry about the way the system is set up, the way the system screws over people that are already at a disadvantage. That doesn’t mean I have to walk around pissed off all the time; I think we can feel a full range of emotions in different moments and it doesn’t have to define us. Maybe what we tell ourselves about those emotions is more important than the feeling in itself. Maybe it’s okay for me to pout and complain from time to time, and it doesn’t have to mean I’m a spoiled brat. I can stop myself and recognize the wonderful things we have, once I’m finished pouting, that is. I can appreciate the best gift of all: allowing myself to be a complete, imperfect person, someone who can feel pessimistic and remain an optimist, who can cry and moan and smile and laugh in the same day, who can keep in mind the whole package deal, which might mean I have everything


A Dream, a Job, and a Legacy of Chispa

13 Jul

Sometimes things fall into place in such a way that you are assured that your life is a jigsaw puzzle and you’ve just found a perfect connector piece that’s enabled you to join a whole big block of pieces. I recently started a new job, teaching English in a university here, and it felt exactly like that.

headed to the office! another day in my perfect job...

headed to the office! another day in my perfect job…

Lucia on my work computer.... happiness....

Lucia on my work computer…. happiness….

I started at nearly the end of the semester, with students who had been teacher-less for three weeks to boot. The day I started, I still wasn’t even sure if I would be starting or not. Less than an hour before class time, I grinned and sat down with the other new teacher, hammering out a lesson plan. I dove in to the planning for the rest of the semester, leapt haphazardly and joyfully into the classes, completely self-assured and confident. And I have my Nonna to thank for it.

“Oh my goodness, I’ve given birth to my mother,” my mama frequently declared throughout my youth, often with a shake of her head or an eye roll, whenever I said or did things that mirrored her mother. My Italian grandmother epitomized my favorite word, chispa, which literally means spark, but also means something like pizzaz, gusto. She did a ton of amazing things in her life, travelling the world, habitually donating her time and money to others, being nice to strangers. She climbed the Great Wall of China in her 60s. She volunteered alongside Mother Theresa in Calcutta. When she came back, she convinced me to donate my allowance to sponsor a girl for school in India (along with convincing a bunch of adults to donate, too). She went on a pilgrimage in Spain with my Aunt Julia, walking and hitch-hiking along the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. On one of her many trips to Mexico, my mom remembers her picking up a woman and her children with their just-washed laundry and giving them a ride home. The woman then invited them to stay for lunch, which was exactly the kind of connections my Nonna made everywhere she went. She enjoyed helping other people and wouldn’t hesitate to ask for help when she needed it, too; she could convince any young person around that it was their civic duty to go find her purse or to shovel some dirt in her yard, for example. If her car broke down she didn’t worry because she’d convince whoever came by to push it or tow it or take a look under the hood, “why don’t you?”

She also put her own spark into the most mundane things in life. If she asked how you were doing and you said, “fine,” she demanded an explanation. If she was making a salad, she’d tell you an old saying about the four people required to make good salad dressing (a generous person for the olive oil, a miser for the vinegar, a wise person for the salt, and a madman to stir it all up). When you went on walks with her, she’d tell you names of trees and flowers you passed along the way. If you asked what a word meant, she’d tell you about the root of it, or what it was in Latin or French or that, actually, it comes from the German, and she’d give you some other examples to boot. My Nonna knew that reading is vital to life, that it can transport you all over the world, and that even seemingly useless facts learned from some magazine or some mystery novel can salvage your crossword puzzle or enrich a conversation when you least expect it.

She always did what she thought was best, and didn’t care what people thought about it. She used her arm to signal turns instead of the car’s turn signal. She would ask for “three fingers more” diet coke (or wine) to finish off her cigarette, and forget about the health problems of smoking because she insisted she didn’t inhale. She made you question everything, even her; If you told her some “fact,” she’d say, “where’d you learn that?” and wouldn’t accept it as fact unless you had a good source. (Of course she quoted her sources as well.) She lived by herself in a secluded area, and slept with a gun under her pillow. She gambled with pennies when she played cards, and she’d tell you she funded her first solo trip back to Italy that way.

My Nonna was also the best storyteller I’ve ever met. She would arch an eyebrow in just the right moment, belt out a laugh even during the tragedies, lower her voice to a whisper or suddenly shout at full blast whenever it was called for. The way her eyes would light up, the way she’d grab your arm in suspenseful moments, her expressive and constant gesticulations are ingrained in my memory, in my being. She taught me enough Italian in high school for me to get by in Italy (and if I’d actually studied I probably would’ve become fluent!), but I don’t remember my Italian anymore. What I do remember is the way she’d get distracted by a word or phrase and tell me a story- about her life, about my Italian ancestors, particularly about my foremothers. The Italian language is beautiful, but those moments listening to her, reliving and relishing our family history, were much more beautiful and lasting for me.

My Nonna spoke perfect Italian, English, and Spanish, although it didn’t come easily to her like it is for my Lucia. She was born in the U.S., but went back to Italy very young, and when she came back again to the U.S., she’d forgotten all her English. She repeatedly got kicked out of school over it, and her parents repeatedly returned her, insisting it was the school’s job to teach her English. Eventually she did relearn it, with more pizzaz and more perfect grammar than most native speakers on the planet.

I believe that she learned Spanish in college, and liked it so much she decided to teach it. She used to say that French is the language of lovers, Italian is the language of family, and Spanish is the language to talk to God. She was certainly a woman who felt she could commune with God, and I wonder if she really did feel more of a connection in Spanish. I wonder if she fell in love with it for all the other places it could take her, all the other people it could connect her to, the same way it happened for me in college. It is too late to ask her now.

Another amazing accomplishment of my Nonna’s was being a teacher who left an impression on her students. She taught Middle and High School Spanish for 25 years. Her students, the ones who didn’t dislike her for her high standards, appreciated her style, the way she talked to each person, no matter how young, as if they and their opinions truly mattered. They’d run into her in the grocery store and tell her, half-ashamed but smiling, that no, they didn’t remember any Spanish, but they really enjoyed her class, and where was she teaching now? Although she’d been retired for many years when she passed away, some old students of hers came to the funeral home, gifting us with stories of what a special teacher she was and how she affected their lives.

It’s too late to ask her now, but I imagine she had a teaching and living philosophy similar to mine, which is basically that life is fascinating. I think that her (and my) voraciousness for life come from a natural curiosity for everything, a desire to learn that is innate and insatiable like the oxygenated molecules pumping through my veins. I love to teach because I love to learn. I believe that everybody brings knowledge to the table, and that everyone can learn.

When I started my first job teaching English to adult immigrants and refugees, working in community centers in Louisville, Kentucky, I had no idea what I was doing. The experienced teacher who was helping me on my first day stood back and watched while I gesticulated wildly, repeated and rephrased and slowed and smiled and pointed some more, trying to get three women from Myanmar registered for the class. They had the least understanding of the registration process than anyone else in the class, but it was a challenge I jumped into heartily, believing in their right to education, and of course, wanting to do things well from the get-go. “You’ll be fine,” the old-hand teacher told me afterwards, nodding her head, maybe more to herself than to me. “Just keep that open attitude and you’ll learn,” she assured me. Granted, it took a lot of reading and studying and talking to other teachings and lots and lots of trial and error (a bit more than just a positive attitude) to learn how to teach English in that context. But I did, and I keep learning, and meanwhile my students and I have a damn good time doing it, because while it may not be the only thing in life, you can’t underestimate the importance of chispa.

But I digress, yet again. Really I wanted to tell you about a dream, about the real reason I walked into my new teaching job with zero self-doubt. A couple months after my Nonna died, when I was happily teaching English in Louisville, I dreamt that I suddenly landed a job teaching English in a university in another country. But it was the first day of class and I realized I hadn’t made a syllabus. The perfectionist in me revolted, declaring total failure. I turned red in the face in class and tried to assure the students I’d have their syllabus the next day. I made it through class, only to get home and realize I had no idea how to write a good syllabus. It was just too much for me and I wasn’t cut out for the job, obviously. My panic destroyed all my efforts and I went to bed defeated. Meanwhile, my Nonna came along, in that special way of dreams, where I didn’t see her or hear her precisely, but felt her, clearly and strongly. She said something like, “Don’t worry, kiddo. You’re not the first to do it. I’ve done this before you, and it’s not as hard as you think. You’re gonna be just fine,” (and she might’ve nudged me gently in the ribs, or maybe I added that later). She left me a syllabus on her kitchen table, a fabulous outline that I just had to adapt slightly for my purposes.

The sensation of her presence and the strength of her confidence in me have stuck with me since that dream. Although perhaps it was something sown and watered and tended in me long before that. My mama might be exaggerating about giving birth to her mother (and I’m pretty sure I’m not that awesome- yet), but I have no doubts about the strength of our bond, which even death can’t destroy. I am so sure of it that when I started this job, thrown into it with no time to plan, with no experience in a university, I laughed and jumped in, sure of my place, knowing my Nonna and my chispa would carry me through.

Where The Wild Kids Are

6 Jul

I was completely taken aback the first time I saw a small child get sent on an errand by himself by a perfectly reasonable, respectable adult. When I was visiting Mexico a few years back, I had seen a five year old get sent for beer- which yes, was sold to him. I was able to rationalize that, since it was an incredibly small town, and I could hardly say anything, since I was the beneficiary of the procured beer, being a guest at the house. Although I admit I might have had some judgmental little thoughts about the situation.


This time, though, as a brand new resident of the fairly small town of Juquila, Oaxaca, Mexico, I tried to insist that I would go to the store instead of the four year old in question. “You don’t even know where it is,” Paulina sensibly reminded me. “And Emma’s really fast. He’s a very smart and helpful four year old,” she said, in that special way that moms say things, talking to someone else but making sure the child can hear what you’re saying, praising them so that they continue to do whatever positive thing it is that you want them to do. (I bet some parent or the other invented psychology way before that jerk Freud. Necessity is the mother of invention, and mothers have lots of necessities, right?)


Emmanuel, now almost 7 years old

Emmanuel, now almost 7 years old

Wild children of Oaxaca: Lucia and her cousins having unstructured playtime!  Yes, they are riding a horse (broom) together

Wild children of Oaxaca: Lucia and her cousins having unstructured playtime! Yes, they are riding a horse (broom) together

“But are you sure he should go by himself?” I asked skeptically. When I was a kid, back in the late 80s and early 90s, I wasn’t allowed to go to Walgreens, just a couple blocks away, by myself, until I was probably seven or eight. By then I had been well trained in the ways of dealing with strangers, tactics in avoiding a kidnapping, including a “safe word” that would be used if anyone ever had a legitimate reason to pick me up because my parents couldn’t. I grew up with clear and small boundaries; we didn’t cross the alley without permission, we didn’t even go inside another kid’s house without letting our parents know where we were. Over time, of course, my boundaries expanded, but always with a bit of hesitation. The reminders were everywhere- kids’ faces on milk cartons, news report and stories of missing children, abused children, molested children. These things make parents cautious, with good reason. Nevermind that most child abuse happens via family and close friends. Nevermind that we all got flashed by that poor homeless guy that talked and yelled to himself, without us having crossed the alley. We still grew up learning that the world of strangers is a dangerous one, and that going anywhere without parents is a grave responsibility, not to be taken lightly.


But little Emma (short for Emmanuel), about to turn five at the time, was full of confidence and determination. “Tsí, yo voy!” (Yes, I’ll go!) he said, still not able to pronounce his s just right. “Give me the money,” and he held out his little hand. Paulina made him repeat back the order- Lala semi leche, the the Lala brand blue carton of milk. “If it’s more than one thing I write it down and he hands the paper to the clerk,” she told me. “But it’s fine; it’s just right down the street. I never send him on far-away errands by himself,” she assured me.


“What about cars? Does he have to cross the street?” I asked, still concerned.


“Ah, Emma knows how to watch for cars,” she said. “I’ll tell you some more about Emma in just a minute. Don’t you worry.”


Emma is one of Paulina’s neighbor’s kids. The neighbor is a single mom with 3 kids under age 7 and, at the time, another on the way (who’s just a couple months behind Lucia). She has very little help and almost no family support, other than her mother begrudgingly giving her a room, which she pays off by helping work in her mom’s hotel down the street. There are no food stamps in Oaxaca. There is very, very little financial help of any kind for single moms, or really for much of anyone. So somewhat understandably, Emma had not been the most well-cared-for child on the planet. He had had to learn all kinds of important lessons on his own, through trial and error.

In addition to being what Paulina calls a survivor, he is a sweet as pie and thoughtful as all get-out when he’s not being jealous or grumpy. He had started to go next door and “bother” Paulina and Arturo regularly, from the time that he could walk- hanging out with them, sitting on Arturo’s lap. Over time he spent more and more time there, until Arturo and Paulina started to call him their child- half-jokingly, but only half. His mom still has the major responsibilities for things like getting him to school, making sure he gets his lunch, things like that. But he eats as often at Paulina’s table as he does at his mom’s (chow-hound that he is, sometimes eating a meal in both places!). He often goes out of town with Paulina and Arturo; we met him when he came to the Oaxaca airport with Paulina to pick us up. It’s a unique and lovely relationship that they have, and I think it’s beneficial for everyone concerned in distinct ways.


So Emma and his over-sized baseball cap came back from the store with the carton of milk and the change. What I didn’t realize at the time was that Emma’s independence wasn’t an anomaly, nor was it an exception caused by his mother’s difficult situation. I thought at first that Paulina was emphasizing the fact that Emma had had a difficult start to life and that’s why he could cross the street by himself, when really what she was telling me was what an exceptionally smart and helpful kid Emma is despite his difficult life. What she really was telling me was that Emma took pride in washing his own clothes at Paulina’s house, while his one-year-older brother did no such thing to help his mom. What she really wanted to stress was that Emma had learned how to cross the street from a very early age, that he always volunteered to go on errands, that he is a fabulous kid, in part, of course, thanks to her influence. She wasn’t telling me, like I interpreted initially, that she could give him more responsibility because nobody had bothered with Emma’s welfare for periods of his short life. She was telling me she could give him more responsibility because he’s a great kid.


Lots and lots of kids around here get sent to the store by themselves, practically from the time they can toddle, on. Lots of kids get to go outside and play without telling their parents exactly where they’re going and how soon they’ll be back. Kids wander farther than I was allowed to with twice their age. Kids get sent on errands. Kids get sent out to sell the milk from their family’s cow, to sell the tamales their mom just made, to go get change for the family storefront from some other business down the street. The twelve year old whose parents run the plastic store in front of Paulina’s house would sometimes be left alone to take care of the business, plus his four year old brother. A friend of ours would leave her ten year old alone asleep in the house and go out for a while, making sure the door was locked for protection, of course. This is all normal here.


I was shocked and, yes, maybe a little appalled by this when I first arrived. But the thing is, it is not some desperation that makes parents give this kind of independence to their children. It is not a laziness in parenting, as the average U.S. citizen might assume. Of course, there are kids who are victims of necessity, who are out selling stuff at all hours of the day and night, whose education suffers or is nonexistent, who live in extreme poverty despite everyone in their family’s best efforts, or sometimes because of a parent’s alcoholism, or a parent’s lack of other options. But for the most part, the kids you see out running errands, the kids helping run the family business, are just learning to be productive members of society as their parents and their culture see fit. They are learning independence in a world where, unfortunately, there are kidnappings and other horrendous crimes against children, but that isn’t the driving influence in how people treat their children. The fear of those things doesn’t make parents restrict their kids more and more.


Of course there are some parents more protective and worried than others. One of Conan’s family members won’t let her 15 year old take public transportation to school, not because she doesn’t trust her daughter (she says), but because it’s too dangerous a world out there. No matter what culture you live in, there has to be some kind of balance between trying to protect your children and teaching them to be relatively self-sufficient, contributing members of society.


I think for the most part, Mexican parents do really well at this. I think that kids like Emma who learn how to wash their own clothes (by hand, no less), run errands, make change, and a plethora of other useful life skills from a very early age have better “self-esteem” than kids who are praised for every squiggle they draw on a piece of paper, whose parents see every soccer move they make, who are micro-managed and not given “free time” ever.

Should there be a balance? Of course. As parents, we all struggle with this. You know your kid needs you to “ooh and awe” over their beautiful squiggles sometimes. They need someone to remind them that their effort in the game was great, even though they lost. They need some supervision. They need some rules and structure. They need attention and for you to play with them sometimes. But there are practical limitations to that as well as philosophical ones. You can’t play with your kid all the time because you have to cook dinner, you have to do the laundry, you have to go to work, etc. etc. You need some “you” time occasionally, too. And I think we would create ridiculously dependent, helpless children if we were only focused on their needs all the time. We have to think of the needs of the whole family, including our personal needs.


Furthermore, children need and deserve to have their own role in the family, to be contributing members of the family, with some age-appropriate level of self-sufficiency and independence. One of my life’s heroes, Dr. Maria Montessori*, talks a lot about this kind of thing in her philosophy of education. Whether it’s just pouring their ownmilk in the morning, or setting the table for the family, or selling some of their mom’s tamales, children are growing, blossoming humans who need to feel useful just like you and me. And so while I won’t be letting Lucia stay home alone at night (even for a little while) anytime soon, I will, someday, be sending little Lucia off to the corner store, a note and the money in a bag. I can already see the huge smile on her face when she’ll come back, another mission completed by my developing, proud, independent little human.


*She was the first woman in Italy to become a doctor, but she got interested in education by working with children who were thought to have problems learning, and she ended up dedicating her life to education. Her ideas about education are revolutionary, beautiful, and practical. You can read more about it at this site or a host of others:

-On another note, you can probably see, after reading this post, how easy it is for perfectly good parents (from other countries who are living in the U.S.) to get Child Protective Services called on them. Another important role of adult ESL teachers, journalists who write in other languages for immigrants, and other ambassadors in the immigrant community- education about these important cultural differences!