I am an American, I was born in the United States and have lived here my entire life, but I am also of Mexican descent. My heritage is often an afterthought with the craziness of day-to-day life, but during this holiday season, I became aware of my background in a way that I never had before and it is all because of one thing—food.
Under the microwave, in an old cabinet lies a stained spiral-bound cookbook that contains many recipes that have been collected and created by my family. Three of these recipes are for tamales, a traditional Mesoamerican dish made of masa (a corn based dough) steamed in a corn husk or banana leaf that can be filled with anything from meat to fruit. Tamales are a major part of Hispanic culture, dating back to the Aztec and Mayan civilizations and are a source of great pride for my parents.
When they married, my parents combined the recipes for pork, chicken and sweet tamales from their families to create–what is in my opinion–the best tamales ever. The recipe they created is the result of generations of work. There are specific pots, bowls, and even an entire blender only to be specifically used for tamales. The ingredients themselves have to come from a particular store that have to be bought on a specific day.
For as long as I can remember, cooking is treated like an art form in my family; there is a saying “When you can cook, you can move out and get married.’’ For a bit of an explanation, in my family you will not truly be recognized as an adult until you can cook. Because of this, I started cooking and learning the recipes before I could even read as my parents and their parents and their parents did before as well.
Although cooking is a year-round, every day thing, the holiday season is the equivalent of finals or death. My mom always tells me during this season, usually in the midst of the cooking preparations which can lasts days (much to her dismay), that my dad’s family did not accept her until she cooked Thanksgiving dinner for them.
I hear a lot of stories while wrist deep in masa or while I watch a humongous pot of ponche (a hot punch made of fresh and dried fruit) simmer beside a similarly sized pot of beans. Perhaps my favorite story I heard this year was from my aunt while she drank the sweet and rich Ponche that I made this year. She told me stories of her mother and the things she would always make. Once she had finished, she told me that the ponche I made tasted the same as the one her mother used to. I was floored by this, because I also learned my aunt has not been able to do make it despite her best efforts.
I had never met her mother, but just hearing that filled me with both pride and immense sadness. The woman I had heard about for over an hour had passed away a long time ago and considering the time period she grew up in, there are not any pictures of her. However, her memory thrives in the the stories that my aunt tells, and now in the ponche I make.
I have never truly understood the importance of cooking and the saving of recipes until this year. Now that I do, I want to make sure I continue to not only cook, but to tell stories as well. Not everyone can cook, but everyone has traditions in some way and it is extremely important to keep them alive to preserve a part of yourself as well. It is necessary, especially now, when the reality is that many people of color have their heritage treated as something to be feared and ashamed of.
According to the study, “How Mexicans in the United States See Their Identity” conducted by The Pew Research Center, as generations develop the amount of people who will claim their heritage decreases, instead favoring the title of “a typical American.” This trend is something that is seen across the board despite the growing population of a non-white majority. In another study, “Multiracial in America,” 55% of 22,779 people from a variety of backgrounds said they have been subjected to slurs and jokes because of their heritage.
It is because of this that people must take steps to fight against fear and to preserve their cultural identity. As many people before me have said, to be able to understand the past is to understand the future. While times are always changing, the environment we are surrounded by forms who we are and taking steps to understand our environment will lead to a better understanding of who we are and maybe even the betterment of the environment itself.