If I Die Far From You: Part I

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.

Mole Casera
Making Mole with my Grandmother

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 handsand 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.

Happy Travels: Border Crossing Bridge El Paso/Juarez

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.


One Comment Add yours

  1. Beautiful post Ale. Makes me think of my mom and my grandparents who are immigrants to the USA from Moldova. The way my grandmother cooks is so imbued with elements of the food culture she grew up within. The ingredients she likes and uses, the dishes she prepares, cooking techniques, disdain for strict recipe following, blunt knives, and a stubborn, ingrained impulse to scrape every bowl, every dish clean (not to waste a drop or smear of anything!) Yet, being immersed in American food culture has made its influences known. My grandmother trusts and supports conventional agriculture because she sees such abundance of produce available all around her. Scarcity was the norm growing up, and she tells me how there were worms in half the cherries and apples she bit into (which she blames on organic agriculture). My grandmother also loves shopping at the Asian supermarkets in Houston. So much that Asian ingredients and produce make their way into almost every dish she prepares. The cuisine she cooks up is definitely a fusion-type. It’s amazing to think how drastically my family’s life changed by coming to America. My mother often refers to her life in America as her ‘second life’, and food is one way that my family is able to refer to their past and native country while adapting to their new home. Your post has inspired me to talk more with my family about all of this!

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