© Copyright by Reneé Fajardo, all rights reserved. Published in Chicken Soup For The Latino Soul 2005 And in Seasoned Sistas of Color 2004
My familia is from Colorado. It was rumored that we all came up from New Mexico about a hundred years ago and intermarried with the Europeans who had immigrated to the southern part of the state to work in the coalmines. The result was a colorful mixture of customs and cultures. Christmas usually was a celebration complete with tamales and Irish jigs. The most important ingredients according to my paternal grandmother were laughter and a love of life, and a good bowl of beans!
This new generation of mixed blood would one day be labeled as Chicanos. Growing up, my brothers and I knew only that we were extremely fortunate to have a larger-than-life family that worked hard and loved deeply. We did not realize we were, by most American standards, poor, or that the stigma of being half-breed Hispanics in an Anglo-run world had caused our ancestors much heartache.
Instead, we thrived in the glow of our family’s commitment to making sure the next generation survived and bettered themselves. I was in my first year of college when I returned home for a family celebration. It was my grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary, and the whole Fajardo clan was busy with preparations for this auspicious occasion. While helping make what seemed like a million enchiladas, I stood at the kitchen counter and looked over at my great-aunt Lucia.
She was a beautiful woman, about 70 years old at the time. Being the youngest of eight siblings (born a decade after my grandmother), she usually took over the role of head cook for all family celebrations. Her reasoning was that she was younger and had more stamina. I suspect it was because she could roll enchiladas faster than any human being alive. It was a God-given gift. I admired her greatly and was always amazed at her dedication to every detail of our fiestas. She baked all the bread from scratch, made tamales days ahead, cooked green chili to die for, and made enchilada sauce that to this day makes me weep with joy.
For the first time in my life, I really looked at her that day. She was always so busy with the comida or organizing the last details of preparing the food, she never had time to talk about herself. I smiled with puzzlement at her devout self-imposed exile to the kitchen stove. It occurred to me that my tia cooked for all of us and had been doing so for all of our lives. She had no grandchildren of her own. All three of her sons had died tragically, and her remaining daughter was childless.
I knew in my heart this must have been a terrible burden for her to bear, but I had never heard her complain. I never heard her once mention the hardships she had witnessed as a child growing up. Nor had I ever heard her speak of the humiliation she had endured because she was from a poor Chicano family. I knew from others in the family that my abuelos and my other old ones had seen great misfortune and pain.
I gathered my nerve and stared at her a long time before I asked her about her life. I recall stammering as I asked her how she always seemed so happy when she had lost so much. I think I even told her that most people would not have been able to go on after losing so many children.
What she said to me that day changed my whole outlook on life. She looked at me, wiped her hand on her apron, and smiled. “Mija,” she said softly, “I look at my life like making enchiladas.”
I laughed when I heard her say this, but she went on. “You see, my sweet, little niece, you start out with the corn tortilla, that is the foundation of the enchilada, and it is the family. Then you dip the tortilla in warm oil, which makes the tortilla soft and pliable to work with. I like to think of the oil as sacred, it is an annointing of the familia with all that is precious in life. It is similar to going to church and having the priest put sacred oil on your forehead.
The family is being blessed. “Next, you fill the corn tortilla with cheese and onions. The queso is sweet and rich, made from the milk of life. It is symbolic of the joy and richness of this world. But how can you appreciate the queso without the onion? The onion may make us weep; yet it also makes us realize that there is a reason the cheese tastes so sweet. That reason is because there is a contrast to the queso, there is a balance to the joy…Sorrow is not necessarily bad. It is an important part of learning to appreciate this life.
“Then, the enchiladas are covered with the most delicious sauce in the world. A sauce so red and rich in color, it reminds me of the blood of the Christo, a sacrifice of love. Still, to this day, my mouth waters when I smell enchilada sauce cooking on the stove. The most important ingredient in the sauce is agua.
“Water is the vital source of all we know. It feeds the rivers that make the great oceans. Water rains from the skies to nourish the fertile earth so the grains, grasses, flowers, and trees may grow. Water comforts us when we hear the sound of it flowing over mountain cliffs. Water quenches our thirst and bathes our tired bodies. We are baptized with water when we are born, and all the rest of our days spent on this earth are intertwined with water. Water is the spirit of the sauce.
“The enchilada sauce also has garlic, salt, chili powder, and oil. These are the things that add the spice and zest to the sauce. Making the sauce is a lot like making your own life; you get to choose the combination of ingredients, and you get to decide just how spicy and salty you like it.
“When everything is put together, you have the ‘whole enchilada.’ You must look at the enchiladas you have made and be happy with them. After all you are the one that has to eat them. No use whining about maybe this or maybe that, there is joy, sorrow, laughter, and tears. Every enchilada is a story in itself. Every time I dip, fill, roll, and pinch an enchilada, I think of some part of my life that has gone by or some part that is still to be.
“Mija, you have got to pinch a lot of enchiladas in this life! Make that experience a good one, and you will become la viejita like me.”
I couldn’t believe that my auntie, who had never spoken more than two words about her philosophy on life, had just explained the universe to me. I wiped my hands on my apron and laughed.
“Thank you,” I said between tears and smiles. “I will never forget what you just told me!”
I never have.