Mexico, beautiful and beloved, If I die far from you let them say I am sleeping and bring me back to you.
This is the rough translation of Mexico Lindo y Querido, one of the most popular and typical songs of Mexico. It represents a common experience of the Mexican people — that of displacement and immigration. As a Jew and a Mexican I come from two cultures that have experienced forced migration and displacement. As a semi-exile, I have lived the experience. I will not relate the details of my exile in this essay, but I, like so many Mexicans, cannot return because of extenuating circumstances. I use semi-exile because I grew up in two countries and one is no longer available to me. The pain this has caused is difficult to describe, it hurts in a very deep way. I can’t imagine what it must be like for those who made their entire lives in Mexico. Home is one way we identify ourselves and losing your home is a bit like losing a piece of your soul. I often find myself getting angry. Angry that my grandmother may never see her hometown again; that I cannot visit my family, and that a government can get away with atrocities. Mostly, I miss the sights, smells and simplicity of my childhood.
So what does this have to do with food? Food is culture; it is the shared experience of a region. Traditional cooking connects us to the land and customs we were raised with. The smell and taste brings back memories of meals shared with loved ones, living and dead. When I make enchiladas or mole I remember the wisdom of my grandmother, “The chef gets the first enchilada and it should be eaten with your hands” and how her breath smelled like onions when she hugged me. I think of my aunts making tamales and gossiping, and the first time I tried coffee with cinnamon and cloves on a road trip to Veracruz.
Food invokes all of the senses, it connects us, but it also distinguishes us. That is its power. When we eat the food of home we are honoring the sacredness of place.
The last few centuries has seen quite a bit of human emigration and immigration, but we still long for home. That is why we cling to traditions, even in a world that is becoming increasingly globalized. We claim Italian, Japanese, or Mexican heritage even when our families have lived in this country for generations. Our bodies contain memories of our ancestral past and it takes a long time to adjust. Forced migration affects more than individuals. It can change whole communities for generations and often it is painful.
So far the best remedy to my own angst has been to break bread (tortillas) with people from my culture who share my situation. It will never taste exactly the same, but it connects me to what was lost. It also inspires me to move forward because in spite of the difficulties, people are incredibly adaptive and resourceful. Remember your home, it is part of who you are. But also remember that it is not impossible to root yourself elsewhere. It just takes time.