Cinco de Mayo

We gotta have a Cinco de Mayo party, someone says. Our meetings, those conference room fiestas, swaying in our spinning chairs, crunching tortilla chips topped with rich guacamole; those meetings are on Monday nights, and ending the year with a Monday night Cinco de Mayo fiesta just seems right.

So we plan. Sitting in that campus apartment, propped in the same places we’ve each sat all year long; in the miniature papasan, Eli balanced on the edge of the couch, laptop balanced across her legs, on the floor, within easy reaching distance of the treats. Every Wednesday afternoon, we buzz into the towering white apartment building, swing into the little apartment, take our seats, and plan.

Authentic Mexican our goal, we write shopping lists for carne asada and all its accessories. Tortillas (corn, in the paper package), salsa, queso, seasoning. We order platters of rice, beans from a restaurant, estimating expected attendance and guessing at serving size. We prepare the grill, book the roof party space. I spend an afternoon collecting event posters from the basement copy center, then excitedly pinning them to bulletin boards throughout campus.

Monday afternoon, party day, rolls around and our team is split; three scramble into a car we’ve rented from school, weaving down 94 on our way to food pick-up and taco ingredient shopping. Five others stay at school, setting up, and our shared text thread beeps intermittently: Did you start the grill? Do we have chips? We bought treats! Can you bring a tray? Don’t forget the music!

I ride in the backseat, shiny silver trays of beans, rice, resting at my feet. In the trunk, 130 tortillas and 16.5 pounds of thinly-cut steak gently slide with ever sharp turn we take on the way back to school.

An hour later, there’s a party. Of course, “wherever two or three latinos are gathered, there is a party” but here on the fourth floor roof in the fading sun, the music plays a Latin pop background to the hum and spark of conversation, laughter, and the crunching of tortilla chips and takis de fuego. Along the east wall, the fire in the grill flickers to life, pale gray smoke billowing in the wind towards Michigan Ave, the Hancock, Lake Michigan.

There are forty people on the roof by the time a portion of the meat is ready, and the thin, savory strips of carne disappear from the table in minutes. As the sun sets and the purple dark of city night settles around us, the white light of the doorway shows the silhouettes of our peers, friends, and guests as they continue to arrive. The wind whips the streamers we’ve hung, carrying with it the clatter and exclamations of a fiesta.

We’re three at the grill; one seasoning the carne, his hand red with seasoning salt and meat. Nico and I stand side by side before the grill’s flames. She grips meat tongs and a knife, systematically placing, flipping, checking, moving, removing strip after strip of the juicy steak. It’s the tortillas that occupy my hands. Arranging them on the grill, flipping them, sliding and shuffling them across my half of the grill; this one here, that one hotter. This one’s done, that one’s crispy. My fingertips are red and soft from grazing across the grill, but it’s warm here, next to Nico, our hands over the flames, and soon, we’ve established a rhythm.

Meat on, tortillas on. Meat off, tortillas off. We prepare and we heat and we cook, and behind us, on the roof, the people come, go, move, dance, laugh, eat, and eat some more. As the night winds on, we run out of guacamole first, then queso, then beans, plates, and silverware. As darkness settles yet deeper, the crowd on the roof dwindles, the remaining friends gathered in a loose circle around the grill, for here is the heat, and here is the food.

And in those late night moments, we are most authentic. Cook the meat, heat the tortillas, we pass carne asada tacos into outstretched hands, slurp cold rice from dixie cups. Then, the meat finally gone, we roast marshmallows over the grill’s flames, pulling the sticky balls of the tips of the steak knives (the only roasting sticks we could find) and sandwiching them between Maria crackers.

And we’re dancing and laughing on the roof, hair and clothes pungent with the scent of grilled meat and the spring wind on that Cinco de Mayo night.

~Natalia

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