Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
Cooking was something tangible Cristina could bring back to San Diego from Zacualpan.
At around 1:00 a.m. a hard rain began to fall, chasing everyone from the plaza, sending dogs scuttling under trucks, silencing the skyrockets that had rattled the air above this small town since dawn.
Aguardiente, the clear, strong cane liquor made at La Perla, a small factory just down the street from Teresa’s house
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
Midday at this latitude, some 20 degrees north of the equator, the sun renders the plaza in simple light and dark: the town dwarf dozes in a deep shadow described by an arch in the hardware store’s colonnade; women shade their eyes with their hands while they wait in line along the tortilla factory’s whitewashed wall. Somewhere down the street, horseshoes clop against cobblestone.
Esteban When Teresa’s husband died, they cared for Teresa and Esteban, her son, as if they were family.
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
But in the rainy season, which comes each year with monsoonlike regularity, afternoon thunderheads mass in the east and by early evening cover the small town — the church, the plaza, the marketplace, the town’s three or four neighborhoods — in oppressive stillness. Water clatters with sharp clarity through the concrete irrigation channels where women wash their clothes
Pia taught Diana Kennedy who spent a week in Zacualpan, how to cook guajes (GWAH-hays), the seeds from a slender, green pod.
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
The town butcher stands shirtless at the door of the turquoise room, illuminated by a single bulb, where strips of vivid beef dangle on hooks suspended from the rafters.The blacksmith stops pounding whatever glowing, ringing project he’s been working on all day. Local women, not quite Indian, not quite mestiza, shawls drawn about their shoulders, stroll home from the vines and trees surrounding the town; the woven baskets crooked in their arms hold leaves and bark and flowers, which, if you ask, all seem to be remedies for anxiety and insomnia. Everyone makes his or her way home. When the rain comes, it falls with resolution.
Cristina's masks from Guerrero state fill the shelves and cabinets around her.
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
This tension is acute in early October, when the town interrupts its life for the week-long fiesta in honor of its patron saint, Nuestra Senora del Rosario, Our Lady of the Rosary. During that week, around dawn, skyrockets announce a daily procession to the church, and every day, all day long, skyrockets concuss in the sky at desultory intervals. You never see the rockets as they go up, only the lazy white trails they leave in their ascent through the damp, lucid air.
Juan Sodado, Tijuana’s unofficial local saint, stares at Cristina while she works the seeds into a paste.
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
No one sleeps well during the fiesta. The skyrockets begin too early and end too late. Meals become irregular. Vendors, drawn by the fiesta, set up stalls in the plaza beside the church. They sell tacos of beef tongue and beef jowl. They sell squares of crunchy fried pork rind draped with lacy strips of pickled trotter, sprigs of cilantro, and rounds of vinegary white onion. They sell ovals of candied pumpkin iced with white sugar. They sell hot chocolate. They sell corn tamales, light as sponge cake, spiced with cinnamon and wrapped with limp corn husks. These vendors upset the rhythm of the town’s daily life: much of this town’s life, like that of most small towns in central Mexico, centers around food.
Every day at 10:00 a.m. or so the woman begins her rounds through the streets with a large reed basket filled with sweet rolls and plain rolls she bakes at home in her big adobe oven. Her rolls are hard-crusted, their web chewy like sourdough, but not sour. Later a woman comes around with tamales filled with chicken or with strips of roasted green chile and sour cream. Late in the afternoon a man careens through the narrow streets, honking his horn, the rear of his car filled with glossy sheet cakes, pumpkin turnovers, large muffins made with eggs and butter. Throughout the day people trudge down the bumpy cobblestone streets, carrying food for people or for animals. The fields beyond Zacualpan, this small, central Mexican town, are thick with amaranth, sorghum, and sugarcane, rooted in black volcanic soil.
Cristina and Teresa, her sister, sit at Teresa’s kitchen table and wait for the rain. Teresa’s parrot squawks in its cage on the unfinished patio. Teresa’s boxer, Imo, stands on one of the kitchen’s two balconies facing the street — homes here, in tropical fashion, have neither glass nor screens in their balcony windows. Imo shuffles and sniffs at the air; his stumpy tail twitches. Teresa is anxious because several of the men working on her new home have decided, from one day to the next, to leave to find work in San Diego, California. Over the past year or so, coyotes have been visiting this corner of the state of Morelos. Many skilled and unskilled workers from Zacualpan and from smaller towns around it, have left for San Diego. Some have sent for their wives and children, others have not.
“Are they happy in San Diego? We haven’t heard,” says Teresa. She nibbles on a slice of the cumin-spiced headcheese she buys in Cuernavaca, where she works, 90 minutes west of Zacualpan. “I know that a man who works here in the cane fields earns four dollars a day. How can that compete with what he could earn as a dishwasher in San Diego?”
Cristina thinks she has met some of these men, or at least members of their families, in San Diego, where she works as a nurse practitioner in Sherman Heights. In her barrio clinic, she palpates and percusses from head to toe the bodies of Mexican immigrants. To put these patients at ease, Cristina always asks where they come from. One woman, not long ago, during a lung exam, announced she came from a town just five miles down the road from Zacualpan. Cristina also examined the five Flores sisters, who provide much of Sherman Heights with tamales, or with boiled ears of corn slathered with mayonnaise and sprinkled with cayenne pepper and grated aged cheese. The Flores sisters, too, come from a town five minutes from Zacualpan.
“Everyone’s leaving for San Diego to make money,” Cristina sighs. She picks at the headcheese. “And I spend so much money coming here.”
The two sisters laugh and pour themselves another drink of aguardiente, the clear, strong cane liquor made at La Perla, a small factory just down the street from Teresa’s house. The two sisters look alike, share gestures; when they’re about to make a point or a joke, they both raise their chins a little. Cristina has been coming to Zacualpan three or four times a year since Teresa left the States 20 years ago. The townspeople still get the two of them confused. When Cristina walks down the street, they say, “Hola, Tere, ”or "Buenos dias, Tere. ” Cristina doesn’t correct them. It does no good. Cristina just smiles and greets them in return. Or she tries to. Walking down Zacualpan’s streets, you’re supposed to greet everyone. During the course of a day, you might greet the same person several times. But often there are quite a few people on the streets, standing in doorways, gathered at street corners. A whole chorus of greetings can ring out from several directions at once and you must be careful to respond to each individual.
“Once,” Teresa wags a finger at Cristina, “you didn’t say buenos dias to Senora Galvan and I heard about it for an entire year.”
Teresa long ago made her peace with Zacualpan. Everybody knows everybody’s business. In the evening the lights dim because the town’s electricity system is old and weak. The fiesta skyrockets start too early and end too late. But the townspeople are as kind as they are nosy and two years ago, when Teresa’s husband died, they cared for Teresa and Esteban, her son, as if they were family. They scattered the traditional marigold petals before the doorway of her home. They spent entire days preparing the traditional foods for the novena, the traditional days of mourning. And, on the last day of her mourning, they lifted and carried away the heavy wooden cross that had lain for nine days on her living room floor, a ritual evoking resurrection.
But Teresa and Cristina, while they sit and eat and drink and wait for the rain, aren’t too interested in remembering Teresa’s days of mourning, or resurrection rituals. They’d rather talk about Esteban, or Senora Galvan’s yearlong resentment, or the dog bite on Teresa’s ankle. The next morning, Cristina must go back to San Diego, and the two sisters would prefer to avoid discussing departure, temporary or eternal. They always have a hard time saying goodbye.
So, they sit and talk late into the night, and a little bit before 1:00 a.m. lightning begins to strike hard around Zacualpan, so hard that, sitting near the balcony, you can feel the thunder in your chest. And the rain falls, great endless sheets of it, rattling the clay tiles on the roof, coursing two and three inches deep down the cobblestone road. The rain falls on Teresa’s unfinished patio and, three blocks away, on the overgrown graveyard where her husband lies. The rain also falls on the abandoned hacienda decaying magnificently on the outskirts of town. Weeds clog the hacienda’s ruined aqueducts, maize grows in its ruined stables. A tree has sprouted from a wall in what had been the hacienda’s kitchen. The vast complex, the land around it, had been owned by an American but was ransacked by Zapatistas during the Mexican Revolution. Who was this American? What was his name? Why did he own a hacienda in this small comer of Morelos? No one remembers.
Cristina and her sister consider the rain. Imo, the boxer, yawns and stretches. Cristina studies her wrist-watch: in less than a day, she’ll be back in San Diego.
In Cristina’s Hillcrest kitchen, a statue of Juan Soldado, Tijuana’s unofficial local saint, stands on top of the refrigerator and looks down on Cristina as she grinds pumpkin seeds for mole on a rough black slab carved from volcanic rock. The kitchen smells of garlic and of the shiny avocado leaves Cristina has toasted over a burner on her small green stove. Juan’s gaze is benign, his uniform nondescript. If you didn’t know he was a soldier, that long ago he had been accused of raping and murdering a little girl, that his execution by firing squad triggered anti-Semitic riots in Tijuana, you might mistake him for a milkman.
“Some say he was innocent, a martyr,” Cristina says, wiping her brow with the back of her delicate brown hand. “I say he was guilty as sin.”
Thick black blunt-cut hair frames her heart-shaped face. The vague arc of her nose could be Aztec, or Middle Eastern, or East Indian. You could wrap her small body in a sari, or Iranian chador, or Oaxacan rebozo, and her body would look at home. But Cristina was born and raised in East L.A., and it took her a long time to learn how to eat.
In this part of the world, few of us have learned how. Few of us have managed to create a way of eating that tells us something about ourselves, that gives us a larger idea of who and where we are. The land itself was a miserly teacher. Before the Spanish arrived, local Indian tribes made do with game, seasonal shellfish, with bitter acorns they ground into a mealy pulp and baked into a mealy bitter bread. To the east, a few of the Diegueno Indians dabbled in agriculture, but nothing on a large scale. The ungenerous scrub that stretches from northern Mexico to the southwestern United States didn’t offer much to work with. Plenty of sun, little water.
To get a feel for the supreme isolation of this place, look in any Mexican historical atlas and note how the number of Spanish missions and pre-Columbian archaeological sites declines sharply as your eye moves north from Mexico City. Moving farther northwest to what is now Sonora, Baja California, and Southern California, you find few missions, and even fewer sites of archaeological interest.
When the Spaniards marched into Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital, in what is now Mexico City, they were amazed by the variety of food for sale in the capital’s great marketplaces. Vendors sold dozens of varieties of tortillas, dozens of varieties of chiles, dozens of varieties of tamales, dozens of different kinds of sauces. In anthropologist Sophie Coe’s America’s First Cuisines, she says a complete account of Aztec recipes and raw ingredients would be “interminable.” The Aztecs had been a barbarian desert tribe from northern Mexico. In the 14th Century, they wandered into the Valley of Mexico and quickly exploited the area’s tremendous resources. The valley’s lakes were one of the end points of the North American flyway — hundreds of species of birds provided meat and eggs. The lakes themselves teemed with fish and edible insects. The area was rich in fruit trees and edible plants. In no time the Aztecs were as awesome as chefs as they were as warriors. They were so cocky about their culinary skills that they used them to torment their enemies. As they roamed about the Valley of Mexico, they sent out guards to camp at the gates of tribes they hoped to conquer and subjugate. The guards tortured the besieged by grilling and stewing ducks and fish so that, according to an Aztec source quoted by Sophie Coe, “the smoke would enter the city, and the smell would make the women miscarry, the children waste away, and the old men and old women weaken and die of longing and desire to eat that which was unattainable.”
Food, for the Aztecs, was serious business, and so crucial to identity — not only to how one defined oneself but to how one was defined within the great cosmic order of things — that the Aztecs devised quasi-scientific tests to determine just who and what the Spaniards were. When Cortes landed on Aztec shores, Aztec messengers were dispatched to offer, according to Sophie Coe, “turkeys, turkey eggs, white tortillas, twenty-five varieties of fruit, including four kinds of sweet potato, sweet manioc, avocados, and five kinds of cactus fruit.” Just in case the strange visitors were divine, the Aztecs sent along a few slaves as condiments. Gods, as the Aztecs understood them, enjoyed human blood. The Aztecs slaughtered the slaves and sprinkled and spattered the blood on the food they’d brought for the Spaniards. The Spaniards were nauseated — “They spat. They blinked, they shut their eyes, they shook their heads.”
Slave wasn’t a mainstay of the Aztec diet. When the Europeans arrived, the Aztec emperor Moctezuma feasted on 300 slave-free dishes. Aztec civilization, at that time, was truly an empire, as refined in its tastes, as elaborate in its etiquette, and as blind to the cataclysm about to engulf it as the court of France’s King Louis XVI. But Aztec cuisine wasn’t so much destroyed by the European conquest as it was absorbed and transformed. Unlike their colonization of any other Latin American country, Spaniards in Mexico married into the indigenous population. Each culture brought an interesting intelligence to bear upon what the other might teach about how and what to eat.
More than anyone in the world, Diana Kennedy has examined the culinary results of this great and early experiment in multi-culturalism. For 40 years Kennedy has, with a Victorian kind of dogged genius, scoured Mexico for regional recipes, carefully noting the authorship and provenance of each. Kennedy’s exhaustive thoroughness, her zeal for the Mexican land and people, has yielded two cookbooks in Spanish and five in English, the last of which, My Mexico, published in 1998, is more than just a cookbook but a travel memoir of the country she loves. An Englishwoman, Kennedy is scrupulously fair. She tries hard to do justice to the cuisines of Mexico’s 31 states, but if you read her carefully, you notice that she has to try harder when she writes about northern Mexico. Central Mexico, and the regions farther south, have given her more to think about and eat.
When contacted at her “ecological adobe home” in Michoacan and asked about Mexican cuisine along the border, Kennedy sighed.
“Frankly, I rarely stop to eat along the border. Border food is border food. Border regions pretty much everywhere in the world aren’t known for their cuisine. When you get up to a place like Tijuana or Juarez, the best you can do, I’m afraid, is to stick to very basic things like caldo de res, beef soup, and tacos de barbacoa, stewed beef tacos. Those things aren’t so bad and you can actually find some very fine caldo de res, but nothing elaborate, nothing regional.
“The cuisine there has been so heavily influenced by Americans, American tourists, what they’re used to and what they like to eat— all those gloppy plates of tacos and enchiladas and refried beans. There’s of course nothing wrong with any of those things individually. There are perfectly wonderful tacos and enchiladas and refried beans, but they have to be prepared with care, and they’re certainly only a small part of Mexican cuisine in Mexico.
“You also have to look at the Mexicans themselves who have migrated there and why they came there. They came there to work, not to eat. And they’ve come for particularly demanding work, factory work. Work that’s far removed from the land. They may have come from places with wonderful regional food, but after you’ve worked at a factory for 10 or 12 hours a day, you don’t feel like coming home, organizing hard-to-get ingredients, and preparing something as complicated as a mole.
“So you had this very dry, and not, until recently, very populated part of Mexico that didn’t offer much in the way of raw materials. And the people who did go there came from all over Mexico. A real melting pot. And with the influence of the United States so close, and the catering to American tastes, the border area never developed much in the way of a truly Mexican regional cooking.”
By chance, several years ago, Kennedy met Teresa, Cristina’s sister, while in Mexico City. After exchanging the usual Mexican formalities, Kennedy asked Teresa, “What’s good to eat in your part of Morelos?” Teresa’s answer occupies ten pages in Kennedy’s My Mexico. Kennedy traveled to Zacualpan and spent a week with Teresa, talking with her cook, Elpidia Tlacotla, and Teresa’s mother-in-law, about the foods and dishes particular to that part of Morelos. Elpidia, or Pia, as Teresa and her family call her, taught Kennedy how to cook, among other things, guajes (GWAH-hays), the seeds from a slender, green pod produced by a tree, Leucaena esculenta, indigenous to that part of Mexico.
Shucked from their pod, guajes are small, teardrop shaped, and bright green. Raw, they have a slightly sulfurous taste, like garlic or onions. Pia grinds guajes and mixes them with cheese to make fritters that she floats in an oniony tomato sauce she spices with cumin. Or she grinds the guajes into guaxmole (gwash-MOH-lay), a spicy mole for pork.
Pia and the women in Zacualpan’s market think it’s funny when outsiders express interest in “exotic” foods like guajes. In and around Zacualpan, guajes are as common as potatoes in an American supermarket. When you ask Pia how long she’s cooked guajes, she rolls her eyes and says, “Ay yay yay,” and waves a hand backward over her head, indicating generations of picking and shucking and grinding. She laughs out loud if you quiz her about papaloquelite, greens that resemble gingko leaves and that grow wild in the countryside around Zacualpan. Papaloquelite, eaten raw and considered by outsiders “indigestible,” tastes like something between cilantro and cabbage. Pia’s eaten it all her life and has a hard time understanding why anyone from Mexico City or the United States would want to make an edible weed a subject of conversation.
She takes for granted the coffee that grows wild in Zacualpan, and the tiny ciruela, a red fruit that tastes like mango, and the strange cajiniquil, which looks like an enormous ugly fava bean and whose furry white seeds taste like vanilla ice cream. When Pia goes to the market, she sees nothing remarkable about the translucent yards-long sheets of cecina, dried salt-cured beef made from cows raised and slaughtered in the nearby towns of Tetela and Yecapixtla.
Pia keeps her own counsel. She had a husband and a son and lost both. She spends her days looking after Esteban and cooking for him and his mother. Several times a year, for 20 years, Cristina has stood beside her in the kitchen and watched her cook. Cristina has watched strands of gray hair gradually invade the long black braid down Pia’s back. Pia answers Cristina’s questions. Cristina tries to make Pia laugh. After so many years, after so many mornings and afternoons spent cooking together, Pia and Cristina still use the formal usted with each other.
Pia and Zacualpan taught Cristina how to cook. Before immigrating to Los Angeles, Cristina’s parents’ families both came from northern Mexico, from Chihuahua. Cristina’s mother’s cooking was, she says, “very good but very simple, like all northern Mexican cooking.” When Cristina was a little girl, her mother’s sister married into a clan of Spaniards who’d immigrated to El Paso, Texas. Cristina remembers the summer train rides from California to Texas, the astounding heat that caught her breath when the train’s doors opened in El Paso. The Spaniards loved to party. They played flamenco guitar. They taught Cristina to play castanets. They made big paellas over open fires in their back yards. They squirted wine into their mouths from leather bags.
Their food — their paellas, their cheeses, their wine, their chorizos — interested Cristina and gave her a taste of a bigger world. But it was foreign food, faraway food, not something that she could eat or make in her mother’s East Los Angeles kitchen. And besides, Cristina’s mother suspected that the Spaniards looked down on Mexicans and Mexican culture. “They’re arrogant,” grumbled her mother. “They think they’re better than we are. They think nothing is as good as Spain.”
Other relatives, too, made Cristina think about her place in the world. Fleeing an arranged marriage with a much older man, Cristina’s mother’s grandmother, Solomina Shefela, a Turkish Jew, immigrated from Istanbul to Mexico at the turn of the century. For a while, Solomina tried El Paso, but she didn’t like life in the United States. She felt more at home in Juarez and returned there and lived there until she died at 103. When Cristina visited her great-grandmother in Juarez, Solomina made her a puree of grilled eggplant, and triangular pastries called fazuelos, deep-fried and sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon. As clear as the fazuelos and eggplant puree remain in Cristina’s mind, she also recalls that twice a month five women who lived on Solomina’s street came to help Solomina wash her long hair. They sat Cristina on a little chair atop the table on which they undid the braid that reached Solomina’s heels. They washed the thick black hair and rinsed it and combed it and helped Solomina braid it again. Decades passed before Cristina understood that the reason Solomina felt more comfortable in Juarez was that Solomina’s first language was Ladino, the Spanish-Hebrew dialect spoken by Jews in Turkey and throughout the Mediterranean. Spain’s Queen Isabella expelled the Jews in 1492, and wherever they settled — in Turkey, Greece, or North Africa — they took their dialect with them. And just as Spain’s Jews had kept Ladino alive, Solomina Shefela in Juarez, far from Istanbul and centuries removed from Queen Isabella, made eggplant puree and fazuelos, the pastries Turkish Jews prepared and ate during the eight days of Hanukkah.
Cristina grew, and as she grew she, like the children and grandchildren of many immigrants, kept open in her mind the question of who she was. During the late 1960s she became fluent in the rhetoric of Chicano politics. She marched with farmworkers. She boycotted grapes. She studied traditional Mexican dance. She moved to San Diego and at UCSD took a few courses from Marxist professor Herbert Marcuse, although, she says, she never really trusted him and was unmoved by his politics. Teresa, too, followed a similar path, but no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t bring herself to make a life in America as a Chicana, as a Mexican-American, or as a Hispanic. In the late 1970s, Teresa moved to Mexico City, and moved again, a few years later, after she met h«r husband, to Zacualpan.
Cristina began to make regular trips to visit her sister and brother-in-law, and it was there in Zacualpan, a small town 90 minutes south of Mexico City, that the notion of Mexican-ness — the specific traditions and ways of thinking and being that identity politics could only evoke but never quite define — began to develop form and texture for Cristina. In Zacualpan, “Mexican” wasn’t rhetoric. “Mexican” was something you could see, hear, taste, and feel. It was grounded in people, in language, in a particular rural vocabulary, and, above all, it was grounded in the black, fertile volcanic soil that effortlessly yielded beautiful trees and flowers and vines, and sweet, sharp-tasting fruit, like the druelas that fell by the dozen into Teresa’s yard.
Cooking was something tangible Cristina could bring back to San Diego from Zacualpan: Cristina could take Pia’s recipes and re-create with them something of what she felt when visiting her sister’s small town. While working at her Sherman Heights clinic, Cristina’s Zacualpan life began to merge into the neighborhood’s immigrant life, a life hidden from most San Diegans. Many of Cristina’s patients were from Morelos, from small towns not far from Zacualpan. When examining them for diabetes or TB, Cristina talked with them about Morelos and about food. They told her where she could get the best fresh and dried chiles (Farmer’s Market at Imperial and 21st), the best fresh cactus and fresh garbanzo beans (at a small Mexican vegetable stand near 25th and Broadway). They told her where she could get the best fresh tortillas (at Gabriel’s Tortilleria, 2480 Imperial Avenue). And they confessed to her that, to make a little money on the side, they, too, made and sold food. Cristina developed a list of numbers she could call whenever she was in Sherman Heights and was hungry. The Flores sisters would bring her big hot ears of sweet corn, smeared with mayonnaise and sprinkled with lime juice and cayenne pepper. At Cristina’s request, Senora Palacios would make as many tamales as Cristina wanted — tamales filled with beef in salsa roja, chicken in salsa verde, grilled green chile and sour cream, jalapenos and cheese, or sweet tamales filled with raisins and cinnamon. Senora Degollado made clear, delicate fruit-gelatins. Senora Arriaga specialized in sweet rolls. Senora Romero was an expert at making thick ovals of cornmeal stuffed with ricotta cheese, cilantro, onions, and serrano chiles.
But of all these undocumented, clandestine vendors, Cristina’s favorite was a short, thin, very dark-skinned man she called Senor Robles. He was only 50 years old, she says, but he looked like a man in his 60s. Cristina first noticed him three summers ago when she saw him pushing his cart of homemade paletas, popsicles, down 24th Street near Sherman Elementary School. Cristina was tired that hot afternoon. Not all the people she examines are content. They are poor. They sometimes despair. Some wish they’d never left Mexico.
Senor Robles’s paleta cart wasn’t a professional metal one with pictures of pineapples and oranges painted on its sides. His cart was a blue-and-white plastic ice chest that he’d strapped to the rear of an old Schwinn three-speed. Hands gripping the handlebars, Senor Robles sweated and puffed as he pushed his paletas down the sidewalk. Cristina stopped him and asked him what flavors he had.
“Pineapple, coconut, orange, lime, plain mango, mango with chile. The best is cucumber with lime and chile.”
Seftor Robles’s pepino con chile y limon popsicle was the best Cristina’d ever tasted It was thinner than your usual paleta, and Senor Robles mashed his fresh cucumbers to a pulp and forced them through a sieve so his paletas weren’t pulpy.
At first the paleta was cold, sweet, and sour on Christina’s tongue, but as the ice melted, the red chile powder left behind a trace of heat. Senor Robles explained that the secret to his cucumber popsicles was the small amount of salt he added, maybe a quarter teaspoon to every two or three liters of liquid. Senor Robles’s grandfather and father had made paletas, in Jonacatepec, a town 12 kilometers south of Zacualpan.
Over the months and years Cristina met Senor Robles and bought his pepino con chile y limon popsicles, he never talked about a wife or children; He said he lived with friends, a family, in Sherman Heights. Cristina worried about him. His health didn’t seem good and, finally, last summer, when it was so humid for so long, Cristina saw Senor Robles on the street and she asked him if he would make a batch of cucumber popsicles she could take home and store in her freezer.
“I would like to,” Senor Robles said, “but I don’t know that I’ll have time. I’m sick. I have a cancer. I’m going back to Morelos to die.”
Cristina asked him what he meant and he pulled up his white T-shirt from the waist of his khaki pants and showed her a tumor that had worked its way through his belly.
Cristina promised Senor Robles that she could help him get medical care. She gave him her home phone number and told him to call her if he decided not to return to Jonacatepec. He thanked her and pushed his three-speed Schwinn down the street. Cristina never saw him again. A few weeks later a woman called Cristina at home. The woman explained that Sefior Robles had lived with her and her family and that he had gone back to Morelos. When he left, the woman said, he told her to call Cristina and tell her there were two-dozen cucumber popsicles waiting for Cristina in the woman’s refrigerator.
“You don’t have to pay,” the woman told Cristina. “The paletas are a gift.” Cristina went that night and got the paletas and brought them home. After a hard day, she’d pull one from her freezer and savor it, mindful that popsicles like Senor Robles’s weren’t apt to show up again in Sherman Heights anytime soon. While Cristina sat in her kitchen and worked on her progress notes and reviewed her more complex cases, she’d nibble on Senor Robles’s paletas and think about why he left Jonacatepec In Mexico, Morelos is a comparatively prosperous state. Campesinos, peasants, might not earn much day to day, but their land is fertile. Few people left to find work in Mexico City or the United States. Most people in Morelos lived out their lives without venturing beyond the villages or towns where they grew up. But in the early 1990s life in Morelos began to change. Kidnappings became common. You even began hearing of ransoms paid in tortillas. The old man who ran the aguardiente factory in Zacualpan was kidnapped. An elderly doctor in Zacualpan, too, was kidnapped, and he died of a heart attack soon after his release. Upper-class and middle-class families in Cuernavaca, Morelos’s capital, were targeted. There came a time in Morelos when everyone, rich and poor, knew someone who had a child or an uncle or a cousin who’d been kidnapped. There came a time in Morelos when anyone with any money no longer bothered to hire bodyguards because bodyguards were generally understood to be on the take. Yet even while wealthy and poor Morelense families were receiving parcels containing fingers and ears, the highest levels of state government seemed unalarmed. Morelos’s governor, Antonio Riva Palacios, as any taxi driver or taco vendor at the time would tell you, was a drug dealer and received a cut of ransoms exacted in the state. No wonder the state and federal police, the judiciales, never seemed much interested in investigating kidnapping cases. The judiciales were running their own kidnapping and intimidation rackets.
Morelos was perhaps not the best place for a corrupt governor to exercise his ambition. Morelos was Zapata’s home state. (Remember the American’s hacienda in magnificent decay on the outskirts of Zacualpan.) The people of Morelos have a reputation for quick tempers and a certain independence of mind. In the early 1990s international wire services started to carry stories datelined in small Morelos towns like Zacualpan and Jonacatepec. In the early 1990s the Dallas Morning News and the San Francisco Chronicle began running stories headlined “Mexican Villages Fight Corrupt Cops.” In Zacualpan’s plaza in 1993, townspeople lynched two judiciales who’d raped a woman. A few months later, Jonacatepec residents doused the state’s governor and the state’s attorney general with gasoline and held them hostage until they secured the arrest of seven judiciales who’d killed two members of a local family who’d refused to pay a bribe. Three days later, people in nearby Coatetelco looted state police offices and ran three judiciales out of town. The judiciales in Coatetelco had shot a 16-year-old in the back after having “identified” him as a criminal.
The damage in Morelos was done. While it had been one thing to be poor but left in peace, it was another thing to be poor and terrorized. Sitting in their cinderblock homes, farmers and laborers felt vulnerable. Coyotes, aware of the trouble in Morelos, moved in to take advantage of the state’s instability. Not everyone who goes to America goes because he wants to.
While Cristina grinds pumpkin seeds against the volcanic slab in her Hillcrest kitchen, one of Senor Robles’s cucumber popsicles, a memento mori, sits in the back of her freezer. Juan Soldado, Tijuana’s unofficial local saint, stares blankly at Cristina while she works the seeds into a paste. Ceramic Virgins of Guadalupe, plates and saucers from Metepec, green and blue glasses from Cocoyoc, a collection of masks from Guerrero state, fill the shelves and cabinets around her. Calendars depicting “rustic” Mexican scenes—a farm girl embracing a chicken, a thick-braided muchacha offering a tortilla to a cowboy—line the walls. Cristina’s acquired the calendars over many years from a newsstand at the corner of Filomeno Mata and Tacuba Streets in Mexico City. The same family has owned the newsstand since 1919, and the old man who now runs it remembers Cristina by name. He knows she likes calendars with rustic scenes and always has a few especially provocative ones set aside in case Cristina drops by on her way to Zacualpan.
Cristina washes her hands. She worries that her mole might have too much tomatillo or too much garlic, that it won’t taste the same as the mole Pia makes. Cristina’s aware that it might seem odd for a college-educated woman, a medical professional, to spend an entire weekend grinding pumpkin seeds on a volcanic slab. But the grinding, toasting, rinsing, peeling, chopping, simmering aren’t the point. The mole isn’t the point.
When she washes dishes or washes her hands, Cristina looks at a picture she keeps above the sink, a picture of Popocatepetl, the volcano visible from the foot of Teresa’s street. The volcano is larger than you can imagine, 18,000 feet tall. A wisp of smoke surrounds its snowy cone. The volcano reminds Cristina of Morelos, of the long bus ride down from Mexico City, of crossing the high green plains to Zacualpan. Guamuchil trees rise up from the plains, their thorny branches spread horizontal against the horizon. After crossing the green plains with their guamuchil trees, the fields of sugarcane, amaranth, and sorghum, you make an abrupt left turn and head north up the long road to Zacualpan. Cristina knows every bump and pothole by heart She can see in her mind the giant ficus tree that marks the entrance to Zacualpan and the faded pink wall of the aguardiente factory where you turn right on the street that leads to Teresa’s house. Imo stands guard in the kitchen’s balcony window. Teresa fusses over the begonias on her cobblestone patio. Ripe ciruelas fall onto the damp black soil in the back yard. Esteban tells Pia he’s hungry. Pia moves slowly from stove to sink, clutching a wooden spoon. She dries her hands on her blue-checkered apron. The braid down her back swings from side to side as she wipes down the big oak table and begins to lay out plates, forks, knives, and cups. She calls Teresa and Esteban to the kitchen for dinner.