By Juan Carlos Hernández
Tío, what do I thank you for? There are many moments, too many to list here. What you have sown in me has sprouted and will grow for the rest of my life. I could write a book about it, and someday, I might. For now, let me share this my dear Tío Roberto.
You are one of the reasons why I love stories and one of the reasons why I am a writer. It was because of your tales about coming from México and living in South Chicago, of dancing and being drafted into the Army and so many others that I write. These were the seeds you sowed and watered time and time again.
Sometimes your voice boomed. Sometimes you whispered and your bright eyes closed as your hands swung in front of you to convey the pain or joy you felt. The emotions were just as alive as when you lived them. In doing so, you filled me with wonder and made my imagination fly back in time. Through your stories, I walked with you to school, picked mangos from a tree and stood next to you red with embarrassment when your mom made you wear an oversized suit for eighth grade graduation. I was there.
Your stories did that for all of us. It wasn’t about the good old days; you just loved sharing those moments. Once, after many years of telling us about the Great Depression and about the nickel your mother handed to you every week you said, “You already know this.” You also told us many times about collecting boxes to break up and sell as firewood. “It was hard, mijo,” you would say. “But, why am I telling you this again?”
I didn’t know, but I never tired of hearing them.
As I grew older, I realized that your story connected to mine and with all of the family. Yours to ours. Mine to yours and to your mother Petra. And to Tía Sofia and even further back.
The growth rings of a tree tell the story of each passing year—how long or short the summers and winters were, but also about the storms and struggles. They also tell us how they were connected. In the same way, we form the growth rings of a family tree with each generation. With time, however, it might be difficult to see how we connect. Tío, from very early in my life you helped me see that it would be stories that connected us, that helped us remember, that helped us heal and find hope. Thank you for being part of my story and for helping me tell my own.
© 2014 Juan Carlos Hernández
The aroma of chile ancho, vinegar and corn oil rising up from the pan and blowing out of the small, basement window was the sign.
Mom was home!
That lovely perfume spread onto the walkway that led to the backyard and the back door, and then out to the sidewalk, imbuing the house in the aroma. That’s where we got our first whiff, and followed it – our mouths immediately watering. Mom had taken the day off or had come home early, and she had dedicated the early afternoon to preparing a fresh meal, one of her favorites and ours too – enchiladas rojas.
For the three of us, my brother, my sister and me, there was scarcely a meal that would fill our hearts with joy and expectation as would these enchiladas, stuffed with cheese and onions, topped with a vinegar, onion, oregano and tomato salsa, sour cream, diced cabbage, and accompanied with pan-fried chicken, carrots and potatoes. If the weather was warm, a pitcher full of agua fresca (strawberry was my favorite) became the centerpiece of our basement kitchen table.
I know that there is little else my mom preferred to cooking a great meal for us, and she usually tried to do it on Saturdays when she had more time, but during the week, it was all about work and homework and chores. Not that chores ever stopped, but that defined our days as we grew older. My father may have been the main breadwinner, but my mother was the engine that kept the house on the rails and moving forward. She would get up before the sunrise to cook, clean, and do some laundry. In the afternoon, she helped us with homework, gardened and then she might sit down to watch TV. It was that or English classes with my dad at Harrison Elementary School two nights a week.
That schedule didn’t allow for enchiladas, but mostly for beans with some type of meat. That was our staple. After major holidays and during Lent there were some changes, but those didn’t stand out like enchiladas because they had to be freshly prepared. They showed that there was time cook with love and patience.
When enchiladas appeared on our plates it was like an affirmation that all was OK, or would be even if my father was facing a layoff, or if my mother had been laid off or if I had had a bad day at school or if my baseball team had lost. Enchiladas did not set the world straight, rather that meal born from the pan and my mother’s hands was a sign of God’s grace – a sign that with love, family and good food we would always come together around the table once more and many more times thereafter.
© Juan Carlos Hernández Chicago, Illinois 2013
Why wouldn’t anyone come by? We might as well have asked a wall because no answers came. The sun set on pots full of food and empty tables and a breeze was more likely to carry away the napkins than any customers. It couldn’t have been the location. Or was it? Just few months before streams of students flowed into our house, but now they just walked past us on their way to class and some other place to eat. We were invisible. We tried. We kept cooking. We passed out flyers. We wanted to make it work this time.
The restaurant had been our main source of money. It paid for our school, and clothes and for the expenses of living in Morelia, the growing city that grew more expensive by the day. Father called us into the main bedroom.
“Nos vamos, nos regresamos a Tingambato.”
Even though I was 15, I cried. My two older brothers quietly walked away to their beds. Packing began in the morning. I didn’t sleep. I don’t think anyone did. We left the very next night to avoid paying extra rent.
We sold most of our belongings and gave away most of the food including some garlic, and tomatoes and chiles to our neighbors. The stove, the refrigerator, the old couch and beds would join us in a few days along with a few boxes of clothes. We loaded up our pistachio green 1970 Opel, and asked my oldest brother to take some of the boxes on the bus, so we would have enough room. We would pick him up by the roadside when we all arrived. My mother tried to hide her tears, wiping, wiping them away as she changed the radio dial. My father was quiet most of the way as we drove into the forests. My sister slept with her doll. I looked out the window at the fading lights of the city. The three-hour trip felt like a three-day journey of failure and questions. What if we had sold at different hours? What if we had changed the menu every week? What if…what if…?
A large, dusty beehive oven would provide part of the answers in time. Aunts, uncles and cousins arrived later to help us clean and settle down. We helped my father clear the wood boards off the oven. I crawled inside to sweep it and then mop it with an old rag. My father went to track down some logs and ocote, order some sacks of flour, and look for some clients to sell our bread out of their stores. Instead of making quick meals for hungry students, we would bake bread.
It was between 3:00 and 4:00 in the morning when my father would rise from his warm bed to step into the darkness. The metal clang of the bathroom door was the first sound in the house during six days a week. Other melancholy noises streamed in from the cold alpine air – the zoom of a lonely car or a truck downshifting and emitting a barrage of gunshots into the wind as it came around the bend and into the straightaway passing through the town. And back then, perhaps a rooster would crow. They’re gone now. So are the donkeys and the cows.
He would drink water, get dressed, brush his teeth and wash his thick bronze hands in the freezing water of the pila, needles stabbing his thick skin. After adjusting his thick-framed glasses, he would switch on the lone circular light of the gray, unpainted cinder block room.
And then he would go to shake the three of us from slumber.
“Ya es hora.”
Sometimes it took two or three calls, for us to get up.
And, so we began kneading and pulling and shaping a new life. We did it all by hand. No machines. We poured flour from 45-kilo sacks onto a large wooden table, mixed in water, yeast and sugar and then we would work the dough with our fingers, palms, and arms, with the energy of the muscles from backs and chest, and our legs – my father showed us how, my two brothers and me followed along. Back and forth, stretching over the table. Back and forth. It was a painful way to wake up, but we had little choice. If we didn’t bake, there would be nothing to eat. The first few months back in the pueblo were the most difficult. Days were long, ending at 7:00 p.m. And sales were short. Sometimes we were left with entire baskets of bread, and little money to buy more flour.
But, the loyal oven that had waited for us for so long provided another answer to my questions. It showed me that hope is sometimes found in a simple piece of bread.
© Juan Carlos Hernández Chicago, Ill. 2013