Tag Archives: Daily life in Mexico

A Mexican’s story

Here is the speech my favorite Mexican gave at the Elk River community culture night. The purpose of the evening was to introduce community members to the different cultures that make up the community. About a dozen people gave speeches, mostly ESL students in the Elk River program and then I gave a speech as well which I will post after this. There were about 100 people there which I thought was a good turn-out. We were even featured in the Elk River Star News article which was neat.

“I am from a small town in the center of Mexico in the state of Morelos.  I came to the United States in February 1995 when I was 19.  My town is about 3000 people. My mom and dad had 12 children but 2 died when they were kids. When I lived there, most houses had one room where the whole family sleeps. We also use the same room as a living room, sitting on the beds like a couch. There was no phone but we did have a TV. We had no bathroom or shower or running water. We would take a shower with buckets.

Our kitchen had adobe walls and a metal roof and a dirt floor. The walls had openings but no glass in the windows. We did not have a refrigerator and no stove. My mom or sisters would cook using wood or charcoal and a big griddle. Every day we bought the groceries for the meals that day. We ate tortillas with every meal. One of the most exciting things was when my parents took the bus to a bigger city 30 minutes away on the weekend to go shopping and they would bring us fruit or some surprise. We knew they would be home around 4 or 5 and all of us would wait together and be so excited when we saw them because we knew they had something special for us. 

When I was young I never thought I would go to the US. I wanted to go to school and get a job working in my country. My father was attacked when he was in his early 20s and has been disabled since then and couldn’t work. When I was 15, my mother died and that changed my life. I needed to work hard and support my dad and sisters and little brother. I could not find a job that made enough money so I decided to go to the US to live with my sister and work in New York City.

When I came to the US we landed in New York City and I took a taxi to the apartment where my sister lived. It was nice to see her but it was so cold there to me and I had never seen snow. I did not speak any English. The next day when I woke up one of my cousins took me to buy some groceries. The stores were so different and there were so many people. One day I went to do laundry and walked by a pizzeria but I never knew what it was. I finally went in to see what they were selling and I saw the display with round things I had never seen. I bought a piece with only cheese and it just came out of the oven. It was so delicious so I got another slice. Then I got another one. And another one. I ate a whole 24 inch pizza by myself.

At every job I would try to learn some English and a couple years later I moved to Minnesota and started taking classes. Now I am taking classes here in Elk River to get my US high school diploma. I have been in the US for 14 years but it is impossible to forget I was not born here. Life in Mexico is still hard for my family but it is better now than before. They have a bathroom with running water and a kitchen that still has no windows but it has a stove and refrigerator. I am happy here in the US but I always miss my homeland and I know I always will.”

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Filed under Mexican culture, Minnesotan/American culture, Tetelilla, Morelos

Warning: long entry ahead

Ok. Strap your reading glasses on. After talking about my writing class I figured I should publish one of my writing exercises. Keep in mind I’m terrible at apostrophes (as is my sister apparently, according to an article published at her 40th birthday party… must be in the genes). I also have not proofread this completely so I do expect my mother to comment on my misuse of desert vs. dessert or where vs. wear at least once. However, it is about 7:15 and I have been at Panera mooching free internet for about 3 hours so I figure I better publish this and get home. I never wrote very much about the day we left Tetelilla. It was a very emotional day and was very hard for both of us. Here is what I’ve written so far about it…. I welcome any and all comments and feedback, even grammatical ones (if you must).

THE MORNING WE LEFT HOME
Mex and I awoke slowly that day. The warmth of morning hugged the fruit trees and seeped into our room, stroking our faces and arms, causing us to groan with the realization it will be yet another steamy day. With a loud whinny, the scrawny horse announced it was her time to be fed. She seemed to know the instant the sun broke above the horizon, and immediately begged to be led down the road to her feeding ground. I was never sure why she was so anxious because the dry, brittle grass of the field seemed as if it wouldn’t satisfy a pocket gopher, let alone a full-grown horse.

Mex reluctantly lifted himself out of bed, kissing me lazily on the nose. I grunted and rolled on my side, sounding like one of the twin pigs his sister was raising in the backyard pen. Something darted quickly down my arm. I sure hope that is sweat, I thought worriedly. Keeping my eyes closed a moment longer, I tried to remain calm. Slowly, I rose to check the mounds of mouse “food” Mex had put out three days before. His attempt to get rid of the unwelcome visitors. Sighing with relief, I realized some had disappeared. Wait. Was it actually moving? Squinting down at the blue tiles I saw the small, poisonous fuchsia pellets marching under the refrigerator. I looked on the other side and saw a little pile of our defense system surrounded by ants. Damn, we lost again, I muttered. I guess Mexican mice are smarter than Minnesotan ones and Mexican ants will eat anything.

Mex’s father had told him that mice had only been around town for the last few years. My theory on the situation was the large packs of dogs roaming the streets had created a complete scarcity of cats, causing the mice population to flourish. Thankfully, due to the meticulous cleaning of his sisters, there were never any mice in the kitchen. Chuy and I were so used to our pest-free American lives that, upon arrival, we did not think twice about bringing a pile of snacks into the room, including granola bars and mini bags of chips. However, after noticing holes in multiple granola bars and the corner of four bags of Harvest Cheddar Sunchips (a surprising mouse favorite over the Cheetos and Cheese Doritos) our error in judgment was discovered. The remaining time in Tetelilla was spent battling the rodents, realizing our repeated losses when we would daily find new mouse droppings on the bed which the food had previously sat on.

My casual attitude throughout this war surprised me, since I would not tolerate rodents, insects or any animal in my own home, placing traps or calling an exterminator at the first buzz heard or black pellet found. However, here in Mexico, in the heart of this impoverished country, the problems of drought, heat, and hunger, of poverty, unemployment, and lack of education seemed to drown out the sounds of those scurrying feet.

The metal gate clanked as horse and husband started their morning procession for the last time, snapping me out of my daze. Feeling slightly defeated and very annoyed by my ant discovery, I grabbed a towel, slipped on flip-flops and made my way across the yard to the shower. “Buenos días,” I said to Chuy’s father as I walked past. His teal plastic chair was already sitting on the uneven stones outside his bedroom door. “Sí,” he replied and chuckled, not so quietly. I know I didn’t pronounce that wrong, I thought. After three weeks, I no longer took his laughter personally though, knowing he spoke little and laughed a lot. Sitting in his chair with gray polyester pants and plaid snap-buttoned shirt, a white cowboy hat throwing shade on his wrinkled, warm brown face, I could not see his crippled hand and leg.

Giving him another smile, I continued down the dirt path towards the bathroom. I pushed the curtain aside and took a hurried shower, trying to conserve as much water as possible because I didn’t know how much was left in the tank today. It was only 7am and the water needed to last, through all the day’s functions: showers, dishes, hand washing, toilet flushing, and plant watering, until 1 in the afternoon. Like in any U.S. city, Tetelilla has a main city well that pumps the water from underground, pushing it through pipes that run under the city’s cement and gravel streets. The difference in Mexico is that each street only has water coming down the pipes for an hour every day. Each family is allowed one private pump to bring the water for all the day’s chores into large holding tanks and barrels hoping it would be enough for the next 24 hours. It never is.

When Mex was young, his family who lives on the north side of town, had the ability to pump more water throughout the day if it was needed and his family’s yard was full of fruit trees and flowers. However, people on the south side of town did not even have enough water for cooking, due to poor pumping systems and pipes. Since this process of water rationing was started in recent years, as an effort to provide water equality throughout town, most of the trees have shriveled in his dad’s yard. In fact, if a person in town has actually has healthy trees or a lot of green plants and flowering bushes, a neighbor will likely report them to the water authority who will inspect the yard, making sure the household is not using any extra water pumps.

Walking back to our cement house after my quick shower, I noticed my father-in-law was preparing to leave. Each day, he took a taxi to the neighboring town to sit in the plaza, people-watching with his friends. I was surprised when the first morning we woke up in Tetelilla, his father was already gone.

“Doesn’t he want to stay here and talk to you,” I had said, slightly indignant. After all, Mex had not been back here in over 13 years, wouldn’t his family want to spend every moment possible with him?

“That’s what he does,” Mex had said, not seeming to be bothered in the least. “He likes to talk to his friends.”

Hmph, I had thought, seeing my imagined scenes of this visit burst and pop like fireworks in my head.

”Felipe,” I whispered now. “Does your dad know we are leaving today?”

“I don’t know,” he said, taking out his shorts for the third time and refolding them, nervous about leaving.

“Maybe you should tell him,” I said. “He would want to know.”

Looking out the wrought iron window bars at his dad, I saw Mex’s eyes start to water. Blinking rapidly, he folded his shorts a final time, laid them in the suitcase, and zipped it closed. He crossed the dirt yard to his father and spoke to him. My stomach knotted, hoping his father would not leave, knowing that this time Mex would be saddened greatly. He did not leave. In fact, for the first time since our arrival he joined us in the kitchen for breakfast, though he sat against the wall and not at the table, listening and not eating. Only Mex’s oldest sister, Filogonia (Filo for short) was home today, since his youngest sister, Eli, had gone to work early this morning. We sat around the table in silence picking at our scrambled eggs mixed with green beans, folding and unfolding the warm corn tortillas, afraid any words would bring tears. I mixed a spoonful of instant NesCafe into my mug of hot water, sniffing the faint aroma of coffee.

“¿Quieres papaya?” Filo asked me. “No,” I said. “¿Sandia?” she insisted, pushing the watermelon towards me. Unsure how to explain that sadness had killed my hunger, I smiled and took a plate full of fruit. Abelina, Mex’s second oldest sister who lives a five minute walk across town, suddenly appeared and we were glad. She had come to say goodbye, but everyone pretended otherwise.

I listened to the rapid Spanish as I looked around the kitchen I would not see for awhile. Terracotta cooking pots of all sizes lined the wall and they glowed softly in the morning sun. The hot breeze was starting to gust through the glassless window openings cut in the cement block walls. After finishing my plate of fruit, I fingered the curvy, delicate edge of the small plate and stared at the pale pink flowers trying to decide what I should do next. Breathing in, I pushed back the white plastic chair, the scraping against the concrete floor making goosebumps rise on my arms. I left Mex talking to his sisters and father and went back to our room. Carefully, I finished copying the Thank you letters I had worked on for the past three days from my notebook onto cards. Years of being shy in Spanish class had left me with terrible speaking skills, but I could write almost perfectly and was hoping to express my deep gratitude and joy to his family in a way I hadn’t yet been able to say.

It was 9:30 when I finished and I went back to the kitchen. “We should go see Sofia,” I suggest quietly to Mex. “Where is she?” Mex asked his sisters in Spanish. “At her house making tortas for a party at the school,” they replied. Abelina decided to come with us and we went out onto the rough cement street and three houses down, entering his sister Sofia’s gated yard. She did not look up when we walked in to the kitchen. Understanding, and not eager to start the process of farewells either, we each took a station, Sofia cutting the perfect bread rolls, Abelina scooping the tinga – chicken with red chile and garlic, Mex slicing avocados, our niece Deysi putting on lettuce and tomato, me wrapping the finished sandwiches in tinfoil. Unfortunately, we finished quickly that way and paused not knowing what to do next.

Mex and I went in to the next room where our niece Gabi was changing her baby cousin’s diaper. Mex gave her a hug, saying we were leaving. I handed her the card I had written and felt my throat clench. I hugged her tight and left the room unable to speak. Mex and I stood in the hallway for a minute, sobbing from somewhere deep inside and clinging to each other tightly, trying to squeeze the pain from our bodies. Mex’s face reflected a deep despair I had not seen before and feelings of sorrow pierced my heart. With my arms around him I whispered in my broken voice that we would return soon. This time leaving was different. Whatever the outcome of that interview in Juarez, he would be back soon to see his sisters and his father. It would not be 13 years. Don’t be afraid sweetheart. We will come back together.

Breathing deeply, Mex and I returned to the kitchen red-eyed and sniffling, causing his two sisters to burst in to tears. After more long goodbyes, words of thanks and promises to return soon, we walked out of Sofia’s house and back to his dad’s. There the process of farewell was repeated with his dad and oldest sister. Filo clasped me to her chest repeating words of love and well wishes which I understood perfectly. Holding her tightly to me, I knew that my lack of language skills would never hinder my relationship with my husband’s family.

The feeling of love that surged as I put my arms around each sister told me our introduction had been successful. My heart ached at leaving them as much as it had when we left my own parents in El Paso, Texas. After six years together, constantly fearing the judgment of my husband’s family in Mexico, three short weeks had truly made me a part of them. Even through the language differences, they were able to see my deep love and respect for Mex and his culture. That was my test I realized. Not how rapidly I could answer questions or how well I could conjugate verbs. It did not matter that I was American. I wasn’t too pale or too plump, my hair wasn’t too thin nor my mannerisms offensive. My worries and insecurities were gone in that instant, pushed out of me by the warm embraces of my sister-in-law. Mi cuñada. All that mattered was my love for their younger brother and his love for me. Reluctantly I released Filo, handing her the card I had made. “Regrasamos muy pronto,” I said. We will return very soon. And I meant it.

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Filed under Family, Mexico

A day in Tetelilla

The day starts about 4:30 am when I absolutely haveto get up and walk to the bathroom because I can’t

Bathroom - shower on the right, toilet and sink on the left

hold it another minute. Mex usually walks with me since it is still dark and the dog has a habit of walking in under the curtain and doesn’t understand my scolding in English. We enjoy the brightness of the stars as we walk the 25 yards back to the house where we sleep. By this time the birds are chirping and roosters crowing all around town. (Luckily, Mex’s family doesn’t have any so they aren’t walking right under our bedroom window!)

A little before 6, there is a loud clank as his dad swings the heavy metal door open and scrapes the plastic chair scrape across the cement floor into the door frame to watch the morning come (one morning we saw him out there at 3:30). A few minutes later there are a couple more clanks as his sisters and niece start to come out of their room. The neighbor’s donkey hee-haws just as you imagine an ornery donkey would. At 6:15, as if by some internal alarm clock, the horse whineys a couple times. My husband reluctantly rolls around for a few minutes, gives me a hug and then gets up. Ernesto is away at school during the week so Mex takes the horse down the road to pasture for the day. I think Gabi probably does this when we are not here. I’m still a little unsure why they have a horse since they don’t ever ride it… I wait for his sister Eli to get out of the shower. She works Monday through Friday. She used to work as an agricultural engineer but now she works in an office in Cuautla which lends money to very poor people.

The dogs have usually let out a few morning yelps by now and the man with the megaphone has started his auctioneer-style ranting all before 7. Since there isn’t a lot of local radio or TV or even billboards, people pay guys with trucks and big speakers to drive around town, starting very early in the morning, chanting advertisements. I can’t make out a single word but the voices have the same sing-song rhythm of the very quickest auctioneer.

Gabi runs to one of the small stores down the street to get ingredients for breakfast while Eli gets ready for work and Filo starts to cook. I get in the shower while my husband helps clean his father’s toe since he had the toenail removed last week. Mex’s father right arm and leg don’t work very well, because in his 20’s he had a mini-stroke and has been partially crippled ever since. He can walk but his right foot drags a little bit and he can’t use his right hand. His daughters bring him his breakfast to his chair and if he needs something else he yells “Chiquitin” (a form of chiquita which means “little one”) to get Gabi’s attention and she comes quickly to help him. 

A man comes by in a truck selling alfalfa and Filo buys some to feed the two pigs. They are an investment of sorts. They buy pigs, feed them, and when they are big enough kill them sell off the meat to people around town. We water the plants with what is left in the barrels of water set around the yard. No plant really gets enough water but we try to make sure they all get a little.

Sometime around 8:30 we all end up in the kitchen (except his dad). Breakfast usually starts out with coffee (the Nescafe mix with water variety), sort-of-sweet breads, some eggs mixed with either green beans or nopales (cactus paddles), tortillas, toasted bread, watermelon, cantaloupe or papaya. I’m pretty sure the sweet breads and fruit are an addition just for us. We have had sopes a few times. I love them. They are

mmmm... Sopes

similar to flat tortillas with the edges curled up and you put them on a griddle and fill them with green or red salsa, cheese and sprinkle some onion and cream on the top. Simple and delicious! The kitchen starts out with a slightly smoky smell from cooking the tortillas but it clears by the time we start eating. Some mornings you can hear clicks and scrapes as small iguanas make their way across the tin roof of the kitchen. We hear the door clank as his dad leaves for his day out. He takes a taxi to the next town 5 miles away and sits in the plaza with his friends. Usually Mex’s sister Sofia comes to breakfast and sometimes his niece Karla and her two-month-old baby.

Between 9 and 10 the cattle go by. The clopping of hooves gets closer and closer until they are right outside the house and the horns bob up and down over the stone fence behind the kitchen. Just like the horse, they are brought down the road to pasture for the day because no one has any green grass in their yards. The fields must not be too abundant with food because the cow’s skin hangs loosely from sharp hip bones. The donkey always hee-haws crankily during our meal but I have finally stopped giggling when it happens.
His sisters tell stories about people in town, family members, and all the stuff people talk about at the table. Sometimes Gabi sneaks out to do homework. We usually don’t leave the kitchen until 10:30 or so when we finally decide it is time to do the cleaning before it gets really hot out. The cool breeze has died by this time and it is impossible to find any shade in the yard.

Gabi scoops up the dishes and goes back to wash them in the dishwashing/laundry station that is set up by the bathroom. My husband and I keep trying to scoop up the dishes to wash them but every time we do, his sisters look so offended and mad we put them back down. Next time when we visit we will insist. I think this time they want to completely take care of Mex since he has been gone for so long. Filo cleans inside the kitchen while Gabi starts sweeping the cement outside the house. She then spreads water on the dirt and sweeps that. I am still very confused by this but his family is impeccably neat and clean so for that reason it makes sense. We sweep and mop the inside or our house while they clean theirs. Then Gabi cleans the bathroom and shower.

By noon the heat has hit full force. Sweat is dribbling down my face, back and arms. Thankfully we are usually done with chores by now. Gabi showers to get ready for school which starts at 1 in Jonacatepec, the town 5 miles away. She is the equivalent of a senior in high school in the US. Mex and I pull the blue tarp off the car and try to start it… Not a sure thing anymore since our car trouble began. Lately we have been stopping off at the internet café afterwards since I wanted to get caught up on my postings before we leave Tetelilla.

From 1:30 – 2:30 it is time to fill the water tanks. The town is divided into sections and each one only has water for 1 hour every day. Each home is allowed only one pump to bring the water in. If your plants look too green the neighbors assume you have two pumps and they will “tell on you” to the local water watchers. The pump fills the tank on top of the bathroom first so they have water to shower. Then they move the hose around the yard filling barrels and tubs with water for plants, dishes and laundry. This is the hottest part of the day. If water wasn’t so precious Mex and I would squirt ourselves all over with water like kids running through a sprinkler. It is very hard to feel like doing anything in the sun because it has such a strong intensity. All different kinds of music starts blaring from the neighbor’s houses.
During the chaos of filling the water tanks someone always manages to prepare “lunch.” This afternoon meal at around 3 is the big meal of the day. Sometimes Sofia who lives three houses down makes lunch and we help her carry it over. No matter who cooks, we always eat in the kitchen at Mex’s dad’s house. Sofia, Arlin (her 7-year-old), Karla and her baby are always there along with Mex, Filo and I. His dad is still in Jonacatepec, Gabi and Ernesto are at school and Eli is at work. This meal could be anything… Chiles rellenos, green enchiladas, spaghetti (either with cream sauce or pureed tomatos), fish soup, rice, fruit or jamaica flower water, chicken and mashed potatoes… and always lots of tortillas. The time after lunch is for descansando or resting. It is hot and sticky and there is not much else to do. We sit in the kitchen and chat or rest on the beds. There is no shade making it uncomfortable to sit outside. This early evening time is speckled with the occasional clip-clop of horse hooves, turkeys gobbling, roosters crowing, donkeys hee-hawing and dogs barking. And how could I forget, the “auctioneer” ads. Sometimes we’ll see iguanas skittering across the rocks or climbing quickly up the cement brick walls to escape the heat by sitting under the tin eaves. Although, I can’t really imagine it’s cooler up there so maybe they are trying to go towards the heat.

Finally someone collects the dishes and around 5, Mex’s dad comes home and sits in the chair in front of his room, which by this time has a little shade. Filo brings him a big glass of the days fruit water (jamaica-a dried flower-, pineapple, or orange are the most common) and his dinner. A truck goes by with someone yelling about fruits for sale so we go out of the gate and look at the mangoes and melons. The vendor cuts Filo a slice of mango to sample and once she gives the ok we buy two kilos (4.4 pounds) and a coconut for about $2. Mex and I each peel back the skin of a mango as easily as on a banana and smell the sweetness before we bite. Filo takes a shower and gets ready to go to a neighborhood meeting. At 6, Mex goes back down the road for the horse. The sun is low in the sky by now and it is slightly cooler although still hot enough to keep constant sweat droplets on my brow. When he returns his sister Filo leaves for her meeting and Mex sits outside next to his dad. I sit and read a magazine or name our overload of pictures on the computer so he can have some time alone.

Gabi comes home from school around 8 and immediately starts getting things in the kitchen ready for dinner, setting out leftovers covered in towels. There is a little TV time sprinkled in the evening because we wait for Eli to come home from work before eating. That can be anytime from 8:45 to 10pm. We lay lazily on the beds listening to the TV and chatting. I have gotten more comfortable and this is the time where I usually attempt to communicate and piece together sentences and stories about myself and friends and family. Usually by 9 his dad asks for his glass of milk as he continues to sit in his chair. Only once-in-a-while will he come into the room and lay on the bed to talk or listen.

When Eli arrives home someone calls Sofia and tells her to come over. Then, even though it is still warm outside we have coffee, tea or hot chocolate as we sit around the table once again. This late evening meal starts with either toast or the same not-so-sweet rolls. Then we have leftovers from lunch either exactly as they were or sometimes made into something else like mashed potato taquitos or cheese tacos. This is the best time of day because everyone is together and the conversation flies. Eli tells about her day at work and Filo starts telling about any news from her meeting. Everyone gets so animated when they tell stories and the smiles and laughs fill the kitchen pouring out the windowless windows. During this time there is inevitably a dog fight out on the streets somewhere nearby. Finally, sometime between 10 and 10:30 I leave to start my nightly ritual and Mex stays just a few more minutes to wrap up the evening. We adjust the fan so it blows as much air on us as possible, even though the air is pretty hot and uncomfortable until about 2 or 3 in the morning. We settle down in bed making sure to stay as far apart as possible because skin contact causes even more sweating. A honeymoon this is not =) We fall asleep to the sounds of dogs yelping all over town and a few good night hee-haws. That is our average day in Tetelilla, Morelos, Mexico!

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Filed under Family, Food, Mexican culture, Mexico, Tetelilla, Morelos