Latino Heritage Month

Today marks the beginning of Latino Heritage Month. In honor of the month long celebration of Latino culture, I am re-posting something I wrote last year.  Well, I am re-cycling the post for that reason, and the fact I am so overwhelmed with life right now that I haven’t had much time to blog.  But, with the weekend in sight, I may be able to put up a new post soon! Thanks for stopping by.

This past month has been a celebration of Latino heritage. Latino Heritage  Month technically runs from September 15 to October 15.  Being Latina is a big part of who I am.  During most of my childhood, I lived in a very diverse community near Los Angeles.  In my neighborhood there were Armenians, Japanese Americans, Anglos, and people who looked like me. It wasn’t until I moved to a predominately white suburb that I was aware that I was different. During my first days in the new school, my new classmates were naturally curious about the “new girl.”  They asked me “what I was.”  I wasn’t quite sure how to answer that question because I wasn’t really sure what they were asking, and I had never been asked that question before. I must have looked confused because the follow-up question was, “Are you Hawaiian…Italian… Indian?” Mexican wasn’t even an option.

I responded that I was Mexican, and then they asked if I was born in Mexico.

 Over the years I have been asked that question several more times, although it may not have been phrased the same way.   Depending on the circumstances I answered the questions in varying ways:

“I’m Mexican.”

“I’m Mexican American.”

“I’m Hispanic.”

“I’m  Latina.”

“I’m American, but of Mexican ancestry.”

“I was born in the U.S. but all of my grandparents were born in Mexico.”

Even though I wasn’t always certain what was the best way to answer that question, I still felt certain that I knew who I was and where my family was from. And I felt proud of my heritage.  My parents and family raised me with pride in our heritage, and culture. At family celebrations,  I would watch my mother dance  the Mexican folk dances she had learned as a young girl. 

I learned these dances too. I have had occasion to dance as an adult. 

I am so glad that some of these cultural lessons have been passed on to my children, my step-daughter Erica.

Diego, my youngest son, walked in the Latino Heritage parade last week. He marched with his classmates from his 1st grade Spanish immersion program. He wore the hat typical of his father’s native country, Colombia.

This is what Latino heritage is all about. A celebration of who we are and who are ancestors were. I hope that when my kids are asked the question, “What are you?” They will know how to answer, and they will answer with pride.

Sunday Offerings – Three Simple Joys

It’s a Sunday in Summer and, I confess, I didn’t make it to church today.  But, I did spend some time thinking about the following simple things that bring me joy and make me grateful.

!. Dodge Ball

Yesterday, Nico came home from a week at Boy Scout camp. He was covered in grime, and filled with stories of his camp adventures. He told me what he did each day, but when he told me about his last day at camp, his ever-deepening voice was filled with pride.

He told me that on the last day of camp, the camp staff challenged the scouts to an epic game of dodge ball. The game started out with about 30 boys playing against an equal number of staffers. Little by little, as the camper or staffer was hit by the ball, or failed to catch the ball, the player was eliminated. The game got down to Nico, the lone camper, against 3 of the kitchen staff. Nico threw the ball at one of the staffers. The ball hit the staffer’s legs and bounced off, hitting the second staffer, and both in one throw. With the game down to Nico and the last staffer, Nico threw the ball at the staffer. The staffer bent down to catch the ball, caught it, and then dropped it! The other campers who had been eliminated but were still watching the game let out a loud cheer for Nico.

The scouts won! Nico proudly told me how he was carried back to camp on the shoulders of his fellow scouts. What a great moment for him. Nico, the last man standing, triumphs in dodge ball!

2. Magical Cups

I have been helping my mom go through some of my grandmother’s things since my grandmother’s passing. It has been difficult and discouraging because she had so much stuff. We can’t just toss it out because some of it has value, even if it is just sentimental value. I took a few plant cuttings from my grandmother’s garden in the hope that maybe, in her death, my grandmother’s green thumb will have magically passed onto me. Yeah, we’ll see how that goes…

I also took these:

These are metal cups. They are the two remaining from a set which is long gone. When I was a child my grandmother would serve me milk in these cups. The milk always tasted so good when I drank it from these cups. Even though my stomach can no longer tolerate milk I wanted the cups, so my mom let me have them. Yesterday Diego, who rarely drinks milk, asked for a glass to go with his PB and J. Juan served him milk in the cup. Later, Diego asked for more milk from the cup. He said he had never tasted milk like that before. He told me the cup was “magical.”

I may not have my grandmother’s green thumb, but I have her magical cups.

3. Greener Pastures

About two weeks ago, Juan declared war on the grass. He looked at the patchy, yellow, poor-excuse-for-a-lawn we had in the backyard and said, “You and me lawn. I am going to win.” He went out and bought grass seed, lawn topper and set our sprinklers to automatic. Friday, we came home from a couple of nights out of town and we saw this:

Juan Wins!

Grass. Growing. And it is green!

Yeah. Maybe my grandmother’s green thumb went to Juan instead of me?

What about you? What simple things bring you joy? What simple things make you grateful?

50/50 Friday – Week 6

Is it Friday already? Well, then I guess it’s time for another update on my list of 50 Things to do Before by 50th Birthday. I have some catching up to do with Number 37 on my list, trying out new recipes, since I did not cook much in Weeks 4 and 5. So, here’s what I did this week: Rosemary with Prosciutto Corn Cakes and Chicken Sausages with Hot and Sweet Peppers.

I made this recipe for several reasons:

1) It was easy.

2) I had nearly all the ingredients. (And those that I didn’t have, I improvised or omitted.)

3) Who doesn’t like a meal that tastes like breakfast?

4) It was easy.

My boys asked me what was for dinner, and I told them we were having “Rosemary with Prosciutto Corn Cakes and Chicken Sausages with Hot and Sweet Peppers. They said “Huh?” And then they saw the corn cakes on the griddle and they said, Yeah! We’re having pancakes for dinner! Well, not exactly. So, I explained they were not pancakes but they were corn cakes. And they said “Yeah!” We’re having corn bread for dinner. Hmm. I started to think they would be disappointed when they ate them and realized that they were neither pancakes, nor corn bread. And to make it worse, the sausages were being served with (gasp) green peppers. So, when I put it all together with the sausages and peppers, I was fully prepared to have to use a back up plan for dinner, i.e. cereal. But, I was surprised. They liked it. Hey, Mikey! In fact, we all liked it. A new meal to add to my repertoire.

The second thing I made is not really a recipe, but it is something new to put into my bag of tricks. That is, the tricks I use to make my kids eat something green that is not artificially flavored or the color of phosphorescence. Kale Chips. Actually, I have my babysitter, Marian Poppins, to thank for this. She’s a whole blog post in herself, but for now let me tell you a bit about her. She is fantastic and has been a lifesaver to me and my family.  She also happens to be a vegetarian who volunteers once a week at an organic produce co-op so she sometimes brings us, ahem, interesting produce to eat. She introduced my kids to Kale Chips one day when she had a surplus of kale and wanted to keep the kids busy with a cooking project. Here’s what she does, and what she told me to do:

Take the Kale.

Wash it and pat it dry and tear it into smaller pieces.

Toss into a bowl. Drizzle olive oil on it, but not too much or it will get soggy. Sprinkle some salt and parmesan cheese on it. Toss it together.

Lay it out on a baking sheet.

Bake at 250 degrees until it crisps and browns but doesn’t burn. About 20 minutes. It shrinks up quite a bit, and it ends up looking like it’s a lot less than when you started, especially when you eat it as it comes out of the oven and before you can take a picture of it.

I am still one recipe short for my project but I will work that out over the weekend and post it next time.

The next thing I did for the month of July, was visit another local attraction/landmark, number 21 on my list.  I went to the Los Angeles County Arboretum. Actually, I have been here before, with my cousins and sister, when I about 7 years old.

At the LA County Arboretum, 1970.

It’s really silly because I drive past it all the time and it’s only 10 minutes from my house, but I have not been back in over 40 years. I needed some time to put my thoughts together to write my grandmother’s eulogy and I thought a walk would do me good. The trouble was, it was hot outside and I also wanted to sit down somewhere. I remembered my grandmother bringing me here. She loved botanical gardens, so I thought it would be the perfect place for a walk, and be inspired by the memory of my grandmother. I was right. The grounds were beautiful.

It was hot, but I found a nice shady porch to rest and write.

Recognize it? It was used in the 1980's TV series, Fantasy Island.

And then I saw this.

It’s a wickiup, or a kiy. It’s set up in an area of the arboretum where there are other early California structures. Even though it had been over 40 years since I was last here, the wickiup was familiar to me because I had recently seen a picture of it among my grandmother’s photos.

Me and my sister in a Wickiup, circa 1970.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Wickiup via Instagram

Lunchtime Stories, An Epilogue

Two weeks ago today my grandmother died.  I haven’t really been able to write about it, because it’s taken me awhile to process it all.  Even though she was 97 years-old and had lived a long, full, life, and I knew she was declining physically, I wasn’t ready for her to die so suddenly.

I have written about my grandmother before,  here, here and here, and I have finally added her own story to this blog, here. Last March my grandmother fainted while my mom was with her. My mom called the paramedics and my grandmother was admitted to the hospital. They conducted all kinds of tests, including an ear-splitting MRI.  While she was getting the MRI,  I was allowed to stand next to her and pat her feet as she was slid into a tunnel of bright light and screeching sound.  The test was intended to determine if something happened inside her brain. In the end, the doctor’s had one diagnosis– she was old. She may also have been dehydrated. The remedy was for someone to be with her, making sure she was eating and drinking fluids.  But, the doctors didn’t know my grandmother. She was independent, feisty and above all stubborn. My mom tried to get her to move in with her and my dad. She refused.  We hired some people to come to my grandmother’s and take care of her. No way. She kicked them out. We hired Meals on Wheels to provide the food and a daily visit. She didn’t eat their food and barely acknowledged the visit. In the end, we all realized it was futile. She was not going to accept our help, and the only thing that would make her happy and keep her alive was to let her live her life on her terms. Independently. She said she didn’t want to be a burden on anyone, yet sometimes it did feel like a burden, the worry and care-taking that was involved in letting her live alone.

About a month after her hospital stay we had a family meeting to discuss how we could take care of grandma. My uncles, my mom, my brother and I each agreed to visit her once a week and bring food and sit down and have a meal with her.  My day was Friday. On Fridays I went to her house for lunch, or I would go over after work. We would sit together and I would eat with her.  I would bring her food I knew she liked. Fresh pineapple, a pastry, coffee and donuts. The salt-free, healthfully prepared Meals on Wheels would go untouched. We would visit. I recorded her stories, and I would sometimes sneak a photo of her, because she did not like having her photo taken. She probably hated getting her picture taken as much as she hated doctors.

Even though I spent nearly every weekend with here when I was a child, it had been years since I spent so much time with her on a weekly basis. Sometimes, it seemed like an inconvenience to have to drive to see her and race back to my office, or visit her on my way home from work on a Friday evening, when I was anxious to start my weekend. But, I did it and with each visit, I felt happy about the time we spent together, and glad that I had taken the time to see her.  It’s funny, I thought I was there to take care of her, but really, I think she was still taking care of me. She would protest when I would get up to wash the dishes, throw out her trash or do any household chore. She would make me feel cared for, and I would leave feeling loved, and grateful for the time we spent together.

On the last Friday I spent with her I could tell something was wrong. She seemed tired and weak. Usually she was anxious to go outdoors and sit on her patio so we could visit. On our last visit I asked if she wanted to sit outdoors in the warm sun. She said she would rather stay inside. When I asked if she felt okay, if she was tired, she replied, “No honey, I am not tired, I am old.” I tried to take her picture but she wouldn’t let me. When she wasn’t looking, I did it anyway.

The last picture taken of my grandmother, two days before she died.

The day she died,  I was at work when my dad called to tell me that my mother had arrived at my grandmother’s for her Monday visit.  She found my grandmother. She had probably died at night, alone in her house, the way she wanted. I left work immediately and went to her house where my parents and my uncles had gathered.  I was sad that she was gone, but I also felt at peace. These past several months when I visited her, took her for drives, brought her donuts, those visits allowed me to have peace in this sorrowful moment. I knew that her insistence that she live alone, as challenging as it was for all of us, created an opportunity for us, to spend time with her, to care for her, and for her to care for us. As sad as it is to imagine her spending her last few moments alone, I know that dying in her own home was what  she wanted. It was the reason she had so fiercely resisted all our interventions.

She did things on her own terms. And so,  it seemed fitting that during the funeral mass, my cousin surprised the priest when he read a poem by Emily Dickenson, instead of the New Testament scripture that was pre-selected and indicated on the program. The organist missed her cue and the deacon kept looking through the program to see if he’d missed something. Even I didn’t know what was happening since I had never heard the Gospel According to Emily Dickenson before. But, when it dawned on me what my cousin was doing, I laughed and thought how much my grandmother would have loved that.  The priest seemed equally exasperated when, as the mass was ending, and it became apparent the priest wasn’t going to allow time for my prepared eulogy, my father yelled from the first row, “Wait! There’s a eulogy!” The priest just threw up his hands at that point, and I sprang from my seat to get to the altar before I lost my window of opportunity. The priest didn’t seem to know what to do with us, these grandchildren who wanted to do things in their own way. I know that’s probably the way my grandmother would have wanted it too.

My grandmother in earlier days.

My Father’s Story

This is my father when he was a boy.

He was born in an area near El Paso, Texas, called Smeltertown.  It was called Smeltertown because of the smelt from the nearby mines.  I don’t think the name of the town is very appealing,  but, when I was little I would hear stories of his childhood, and I would think that Smeltertown sounded like a fascinating place.

Sometimes my dad’s childhood stories were tales of his struggles growing up, being raised by his adoptive mother, and his adoptive grandmother. My dad’s mother died when he was just months old.  His mother’s cousin, and her mother, raised him in Smeltertown. They made their living, in part, selling masa to make tortillas.  My dad worked alongside his adoptive mother and grandmother.

My dad's mother, cousin, and aunts.

My father was raised by these two strong, independent women.  They loved him and cared for him, but  were strict disciplinarians with him.  The only male presence, my father’s step-father, was largely absent.  When my dad was a teen they came to California and settled in a pretty rough neighborhood in East Los Angeles.

Dad, circa 1950, Belmont High School, Los Angeles.

He stayed out of trouble and eventually joined the army, which gave him more discipline, and offered him greater opportunity.

Dad in the Panama Canal Zone, 1953

My dad got out of the army and lived the single life, until he met and married my mom. They started their family right away, with three kids born in just over 4 years.  When my dad became a father, he had very little personal exposure to what being a father in a nuclear family looked like. Nowadays, they call that “modeling.”

Family Dinner, circa 1978.

But the lack of “modeling” has not deterred my dad. He learned a lot along the way. We have learned a lot along the way together too. Sometimes the lessons were rough. But, always, we knew he loved us and took care of us. And always, along the way, we have built new memories and created our own stories.

He took us on family vacations.

Family vacation to Vancouver, Canada, circa 1977. (Dad's not pictured because he was the photographer!)

Many times these vacations involved one of his favorite activities, fishing.

Vacation at Mammoth Lakes, California. Circa 1970.

Another Mammoth Lakes vacation.

He sang us songs.

Canciones de mi padre.

He coached my brothers in sports.

He has become a devoted grandfather.

Dad and Nico and Diego all dressed up.

When I was little people would comment how much I looked like my dad. I would cry because I thought they meant I was chubby and had a mustache.

Dad and I at my college graduation, 1986

But, now I understand that they meant we had similar features. Today, I know that my dad and I are similar in ways beyond our physical appearance, and even beyond some of our similar behaviors.  My dad and I share a similar understanding, and appreciation for each other. We have struggled. We are flawed, but we love each other. He is my father. I am his daughter. We are familia.

Happy Fathers Day, Dad.

Tres Generaciones

This is a picture of my grandmother, my mother and I. My grandmother is 97 years-old and as you can tell from the spark in her eye, she is a firecracker. Lately, she is causing us some worry because she insists on living on her own.  She is independent, stubborn, resourceful and very loving. She has created many happy memories for me and her other 9 grandchildren. I think a lot of what my mother learned about being a mother, she learned from my grandmother.

This is my mother before she married my dad. My mom is the one who looks like she is 12 years-old and too young to be in Vegas with her girlfriends. She has always looked younger than her years.  When I was growing up I don’t think my mom ever weighed more than 110 pounds soaking wet.

In her late 20’s my mom met and married my dad. They started their family right away, with 3 kids  born 17 months apart. I don’t know how she did it. She says there was a time when my older brother, my younger sister and I were in diapers at the same time!  Eight years after my sister was born my dad said he wanted another boy. My mother agreed and 9 months later my younger brother was born. I don’t know how she did that! (Well, I do know how they did that, I just don’t like to think about it.)

When I was growing up my mother was in constant motion. Like many women of her day, she was a stay-at-home mom.  She made it look effortless. On our birthdays she organized parties for us and would invite the entire neighborhood.

We didn’t have bounce houses, clowns or magicians. We had my mom who would organize the games.

She was a soccer mom before there were soccer moms.

My mother didn’t just support my brother’s in their sports, she also supported me and my acting ambitions.  Here she is at one of my play productions, standing by while I sign autographs.

My mom wore many hats, including a barber hat.

Here she is in her laundress hat.

She rarely complained about her many household tasks, except when it came to do laundry. I didn’t understand why she disliked doing laundry for a family of 6. Now that I have my own family and my own endless pile of laundry, I understand.  But, at least I have a clothes dryer. Our family didn’t buy a clothes dryer until I was almost 13 years-old!

Something else happened when I was around 13 years-old, I suddenly knew everything there was to know about life.  Even though I still didn’t know how to do my own laundry, cook my own meals, or even pack my own school lunch, I knew more than anyone in my family, including my mother. Especially my mother. I would never stay home and raise children. I would work in show business, I would become a writer, or maybe even a lawyer. Thanks in part to my mom’s love and support,  I have had a turn doing all those things.  But wouldn’t you know it? I have also become a mom. Like my mom, I have two boys and two girls. Life has played a joke on me.  But my mom isn’t laughing. She is still here, supporting me, loving me and taking care of our family.  It’s something she learned from my grandmother, and something I hope I have learned from both of them. So, to my grandmother, and my mother…thank you and Happy Mother’s Day!

Arepas, Tamales, and the Smell of Childhood Memories

The other day I was driving Diego to school and eating a Colombian breakfast to go, an arepa con queso. For those of you who do not know what an arepa is, you have not fully lived. But I must confess, until I met my Colombian husband, I did not know what an arepa was either. It wasn’t until I was invited to Juan’s birthday dinner, prepared by my future suegra, did I learn about the wonderful flavors of a “plato tipico.”  There was chorizo, carne, white rice, frijoles, platanos, patacones, and arepas.  Dinner concluded with coffee, (of course), and the birthday boy’s specially requested homemade apple pie. Because what else do you serve in a Colombian/American house? was wonderful…but I digress.

Anyway, ever since my introduction to the arepa I have had cravings for them. They are kind of like a mexican tortilla, only more so. They are thicker and more flavorful.  Arepas made with roasted corn, called chocolo, are my personal favorite. This type of arepa is especially tasty because of it’s sweet and smoky flavor. Arepas can be eaten at any meal. They are great with breakfast, when spread with butter and served with good-sized chunks of cheese. The white kind of crumbly, mild flavored cheese. The arepa is well-loved in my husband’s family. Here’s a photo from some good times in Colombia, when Juan’s cousins found out how much I loved the arepa. 

I could go on and on about the arepa, as I probably already  have. Can you tell home much I like them? Well, one morning I was driving Diego to school while savoring my chocolo arepa, when Diego exclaimed, “Ewww, what’s that smell?” He then rolled down the car window.

“What smell?” I said, trying, unsuccessfully to catch the arepa and cheese crumbles as they flew out of my mouth.

“Something stinks.”

WHAT? How could he spurn the arepa, especially the sweet-smelling arepa de chocolo? Then I recalled my similar childhood reaction I had to the unfamiliar smell of the masa from homemade tamales. I remember my mother and grandfather preparing tamales in our kitchen and the foreign smell that emanated from the big, white enamel bowl, as they mixed the masa.  My sister and I stayed outside the house on tamale making days, coming inside only if we had to, and then we would only enter if we held our nose. 

However, now that I am an adult and have experienced tamale making with my mother and grandmother, I no longer am repulsed the smell of the masa. In fact, I kind of like the smell. It is no longer a foreign smell to me and it brings back memories of those tamale days.  Plus, I know that once the masa is spread on the corn husks, filled with the meat and red chili, wrapped like tiny Christmas presents, and cooked,  the raw, gritty masa will become fluffy, sweet and light. And delicious. Just like an arepa.

So,  I explained this to Diego, how I didn’t like some smells when I was little, but that he should be open to try all foods, especially foods from our culture. When I explained to him how tamales and arepas are part of his culture, from his Mexican american mother and Colombian  american father, and how delicious arepas con queso are, how did he respond? 

“Well, Mommy, I guess I am not as Mexican or Colombian as you and Daddy are.”  Sigh.

Oh well, more arepas for me.