We had the absolute privilege to travel to Mexico at the end of January to visit the families of Felipe, Sarai & José Abraham, and Alma & Carlos. We met their moms and dads and grandmothers and siblings, and we got to let them know how much we appreciate the way their loved ones enrich our lives up here in Wisconsin and Minnesota. We also increased our understanding of the lives that they left behind.
On one of the days of the trip, we went to Tlaquilpa where brothers José Abraham & Carlos grew up. Their parents had been waiting for us along with Carlos’ daughter, their uncles, and other extended relatives. With everyone gathered in the kitchen, we feasted on chicken mole and special tamales wrapped in a leaf specific to that region.
For anyone that has seen the process of preparing tamales, you know it is not a simple task. After getting the kernels free from the cob, they are soaked in water with calcium hydroxide for at least a day to make the corn easier to grind and easier to digest. The Aztecs discovered this process thousands of years ago by grinding corn on limestone and realizing that they felt better and had more energy after eating it. These days, the corn is generally ground at home with a small machine that cranks by hand or is taken to a shop in town that has an electric grinder. Then, spices like chiles are roasted over the fire and meat is seasoned and roasted to perfection so that it falls off the bone. All these ingredients are combined and lovingly wrapped in a cornhusk or banana leaf, and in this case, an encino leaf and then steamed for hours until all the flavors marry and the tamale is perfect. While we weren’t part of the process on this particular day, we know that it was a labor of love and that it symbolized so much more than a meal.
José Abraham and Carlos’ mother misses them dearly and she wanted to show us everything she could about their upbringing that meant so much to her and so much to them. So, after feeding us one of their favorite meals, she took us up to a hillside above the town to give us a tour of where her sons grew up. We inched up a steep gravel road and at the top, we got to see breath taking views of the town below and the house that Carlos and Alma were having built from all their work up here in Minnesota. Their father had their sheep out grazing the hillside and we could see why they were so proud of the way their sons were raised.
After soaking in the beauty of their childhood home, we were taken to see their dad’s mother who gave us the sweetest hugs. We shared a cup of coffee with her and some of her children and grandchildren in their kitchen while she tearfully told us about all of her loved ones that were far away from home. One of her grandsons is working on a farm in Minnesota and she wanted to make sure that we knew how close he was to her heart because he always checked in on her when he lived in town and made sure she was okay. We could feel how deeply she missed him.
Then we were swept off to their other grandmother’s house where we discovered more connections and were greeted with another meal made with love. Their grandmother is taking care of the children of one of her daughters who is working on a farm in Wisconsin. She and her husband came here because they didn’t have a house of their own and they wanted to give their children more dignified living conditions. We met their youngest son, Juanito, right away. When his grandmother told him that we knew his parents up in the states, he looked up with wide eyes and said: “Tell them that I miss them a whole lot and tell HER to come back as fast as possible.” Those words tugged on our heartstrings as we related to that type of love, the one that we had for our mother at the age of 7.
Meeting two grandmothers, a handful of siblings, at least a dozen aunts and uncles, and countless cousins that day taught us the true meaning of family closeness and togetherness. There was of course a tinge of sadness in the air as we talked about the physical absence of their loved one, but everyone that we visited beamed with pride talking about the values they learned growing up and the hard work they were putting into creating something better for their families. For three days, we were intimately welcomed like this into the heart of families’ homes to share meals and cups of coffee. We have to acknowledge though that so much more was shared with us as we gathered around kitchen tables and cooking fires; the art of hospitality, the beauty of sharing the joys and tragedies in your life, and the value of being interconnected. We started each day knowing that we were going to meet their families, but we got unexpected lessons in the expansive definition of family and how much our connections to one another truly mean.