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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It Comes Back to Me

Could you grab a banana? Mar asks me as I stand, pushing my chair backwards with exaggerated effort.

We’re allowed to take one piece of fruit out of the dining room, and I’ve been stashing apples in my room since Monday, painstakingly toting one red fruit out of the dining room every meal.

But she wants a banana, and I nod, step away, only to return to the table.

What for? I ask, leaning onto table, my hands planted on either side of the bowl of chicken noodle soup I’ve just finished.

I have some coconut oil upstairs and want to try making fried bananas, she says, the idea glowing excitedly in her strong blue eyes.

Ah! Fried plantains! I exclaim as I step away from the table once more, We used to make that at the orphanage all the time!

Because I might not talk about it very much on in this space, but the time I spent in Mexico, the days and weeks and months that I lived life at the Casa Hogar, are still fresh in my memory.

I still remember answering the phones in that cool downstairs office, sitting in Hermana Tere’s spinning chair and fielding questions from a woman who has a child she cannot care for, can she drop her off tomorrow?

I still remember the hours spent standing in the kitchen, skidding around on the slippery white tile. Making lunch, serving anything from carrot puree soup (not a hit) to hamburgers and salad (winner winner).

I still remember late nights riding in the van with Manuel and Tere, their family. 1am driving back from the aunt’s house, exhausted and full after a night of games and tacos with the cousins.

I still remember the women who ran the tiendita across the street, inviting us into their home, giving my sisters free bags of potato chips and kisses on our frequent visits.

I still remember Saturday night restaurants with my family, moving through that Mexican city in the mountains, trying new dishes, becoming more adventurous, with every passing weekend.

I still remember church on Sunday morning, back in the evening if I was lucky. Sitting on the faded pink pew benches, raptly attentive to the pastor even as I watched those around me, soaking in every detail of Mexican life that I could possibly remember.

I don’t talk about it very much, I know. But I remember it all.

And tonight, standing in the kitchen frying thin slices of banana in sizzling coconut oil, it came back to me all over again.

~Natalia

Mangonadas at the Market

I know, in the back of my mind, that we stand out.

It’s not really new to me, I suppose.

First a young girl roaming the streets of Paris with mother and brother, then the only pale one in a sea of dark Mexican faces, then part of a family comprised of two different ethnicities.

I might not always notice it. But that doesn’t mean I’m not familiar with standing out.

So we push through the foggy glass door, step inside the warm building, and I know we stand out.

The sign outside, huge letters floating above the chaotic parking lot, read Mall. But inside, these stalls and their wares, their vendors and customers are familiar to me, and I know what this is: it’s a market.

We’re six total. Three girls, three guys. We came with more, we were 22 strong on the El ride here, but 22 makes more noise, causes more scene than six, and we’ve split now.

Someone, one of the girls, holds a list. Seven items, typed in curling cursive font, suggestions for things to look for, ideas to try, items of interest to pay attention to.

The list is more guidelines than goals, but it’s warm, busy, loud, in this market, and we’ve been given money to buy treats, if we want.

We move along the aisles, weaving between stalls of bouncing, frilly Quinceañera dresses, and shelves lined with authentic cowboy boots.

I feel glances as we make our way slowly down the aisles of stalls. Under the high warehouse ceiling, the stalls are separated by metal racks, dresses, clothes, shoes, treats, and toys hung from the cold concrete floor to the ceiling.

We pass families, little boys slipping between the stalls, wandering restlessly while their mothers compare gold earrings at a long counter of gold jewelry. In a shoe stall, a woman and her daughter sit on green plastic stools, waiting for their shoes. A little girl, her black hair pulled back into short, curly braids, stands resolutely next to the older woman, and I catch her solemn gaze as we pass.

Around the corner, up an aisle, a small stall sells food. We’re looking for the bathroom, and I’m the leader of the group, I’ll ask, of course, but you cannot simply walk up and demand a baño.

And besides, we’re hungry.

We buy two tamarindo candies, a bottle of water, and a tub of Pond’s lotion. And I’m pocketing change, receipt, when I ask for the bathroom. She gives directions, we thank, and wander again.

I’m becoming comfortable in this place, this Mexican Chicago market. We find the bathrooms, and along with them, a stand selling mangonadas. We leave that stand sucking chamoy and chile off of heavy mango popsicles, and I’ve forgotten that we might not fit in here.

Or maybe it never mattered in the first place.

Later, texts from the mother come through in silver bubbles on my phone and we’re swapping Saturday stories. Did you use your mother tongue? She asks, when she hears about market and mango and all those familiar Latin scents taking me right back to downtown markets in the Mexican city we called home.

I like hearing it called the mother tongue, even thought it’s often a struggle to find time, places, people for speaking Spanish. But I smile, text her back. Yes, yes I did.

And she’s right, too. Because there will always be something about Spanish speaking, vendors in the market, dark little ones running between stalls as their parents shop, bargain, purchase, that reminds me of a place very important, a culture very close to my heart.

~Natalia

Mexican Christmas Streets

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Grocery Store Christmas Tree, December, 2009, Mexico.

I told you yesterday, last night, that we’re talking Latin, Hispanic, Christmas traditions tonight in Puente. And we did. Sat around that long, professional table, in those arm-rest swivel chairs; the ones with the little lever under the seat that makes you go down, down, down, when you hit it.

We sat there in that conference room, with the Christmas lights hung from the ceiling glowing white, happy, warm. Where there are two or more Latinos gathered, there is a party, and where there is party, there is food, conversation, family. So we’ve got baskets of sweet bread scattered across the table, a pot of Abuelita hot chocolate on the counter, and we lean forward in our swivel chairs, talk, laugh, exclaim across the table.

Someone comes in, clicks through the dark door, at 9:07, apologizing for her lateness; Puente starts at 9pm, after all. We wave arms, welcome her in, pull a chair out. We run on Latin time: easy, relaxed, fluid. A table-wide discussion about paranoias, phobias, unfolds to laughter and she’s afraid of spiders, and someone says something about wrists, and I say stairs (did you know there’s a name for that? There is: climacophobia) then we’ve gotta bring up whales, dolphins, and suddenly it’s 9:30pm, we’re diving into our planned discussion on Christmas in different Spanish-speaking countries.

Parrandas in Puerto Rico, globos and carne asada in Argentina, rosca in both. And spur of the moment, we watch a slideshow of picture of a Puerto Rican Christmas, and I emailed Guatemala today, thinking summer 2014, another visit, but I’ve spent two Christmases in Mexico, and all these memories are flooding back.

Memories of driving around our little mexican city those December nights, cold because it’s 55 degrees. The streets are narrow, chinked cement wobbling together, all those captivatingly colorful houses packed together on either side. I’m entranced by the houses; was then, probably will be forever. Each unique in color, although often similar in shape, I watch from the car window, gaze long at each angular, beautiful house, catching what glimpse I can between the bars of white front gates, locked metal portones.

Some houses have inflatables in their yards, illuminated Santas, Snoopy, snowmen. Others have strung lights across their flat roofs. Yet others, like our own Little Pink House, boast a Christmas tree, decorated, glowing cheery in the window.

Of course, there are a million and one other memories, snippets of moments, Christmas traditions and view and mental snapshots I forgot I ever snapped. But tonight, I’m thinking of all those houses and all those streets, and those lights, trees, and the gaudy, whimsical, plastic, perfect decorations on those dusty Mexican streets.

~Natalia

Beads

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Glendy and Larissa. November, 2009. Mexico.

This picture slid across my computer screen this evening. Taken in the garden of the Little Pink House, the girls were four and almost three, on our way to an evening service at that thriving, living, wonderful concrete church in Mexico.

I saw this picture, standing over my computer, pausing to rest towards the end of a moving, going, unpredictable weekend. I watched it slide past and in that moment, life made a little more sense.

Sense because living that year in Mexico was not a nine-month foray into experiences, language, culture, that has no bearing on what I do, what I care about, what I think now, four years later. It does.

God is using the things I heard, the things I saw and learned and thought and remember during those Mexico months right here, right now.

Has used them, is using them, will use them. Because what we do, what you and I are doing in these lives in these current moments, matters. Matters because God is God everywhere, in all places. And every day, every moment, every snippet of a life that just seems to happen; all these things He uses to teach and to train and to prepare.

Are you doing great things, exciting things? Things that tie so well, align so close, to the God-given dream that you carry in your soul, day in and day out?

That’s good.

Are you doing mundane things? Typical things? Things that don’t seem to matter or move you or take you closer, take you faster, to where you long to go?

Hold on. Pay attention.

Soak it all in, live it well.

Because the days we live and the places we go are beads strung on a necklace. Building to completion, building to sense, building to purpose that becomes clear as the days become weeks, months, years. And later, soon, we stop, turn around, look back, and see how He’s using moments and experiences and seasons and lessons to make our hearts softer, our minds sharper, our hands readier- more able- to do the things that He’s known since the beginning that we would do.

~Natalia

To Guard You Heart

The general Christian population is fairly familiar with the phrase “Guard your heart.” I grew up to the soundtrack of this admonition, and mentally stashed it away with other tidbits of information I received that had very little to do with people who were not in romantic relationships and therefore had nothing from which to guard their hearts.

I still remember the day that the idea of guarding hearts made sense.

I was 19, living in Mexico, working, playing, cooking, being, at the Casa Hogar. A friend I’ve written about before, a dear, vibrant, beautiful girl just a year older than myself, was upset about something. Wrong had been done, she had been hurt, broken people- we’re all that way- create broken relationships; that’s just how it goes.

I was standing outside the office, in the shade of the second floor balcony, when Hermana Tere called me into the cool, white-tiled room, to where my friend also sat. I stepped inside, joined the pair at the table. Hermana Tere’s tone, gentle, soft, was serious; I’d heard the same tone before, when she told me of the abuse of children, the breaking of tiny hearts, the reasons many of the children came to the Casa Hogar.

I sat and listened, quiet.

You need to guard each others’ hearts, Hermana Tere said. I am sure that my eyes widened, my head tilted to the side; listening intently. I had never heard the guarding of hearts spoken about this way before- there were no boys involved now.

The things you say, she nodded to both of us, affect each other. They shape how you each thinks about other people, what you say to them, how you see them. Both of you have scars, memories, experiences that hurt you, shape you, too. You are friends, you share things, and that is okay, but you need to guard each others’ hearts in what you say, how you say it, how you push each other to act.

And she was right. There is a part of guarding your heart that is keeping it close- but not closed- in romantic relationships. There’s a part of it that is not letting too much out, nor too much in, when attraction turns serious and it’s not “just friends” anymore.

But it’s also so much more than that.

Guarding my heart is knowing that the music I listen to, the books I read, the word I hear and the conversations I have are shaping the way that I think about myself, others, God, and the way life works. Guarding my heart is letting, asking, begging, Christ to be the one who decides what stays, what takes root, in my heart.

It goes beyond me, too. I guard my heart, and I guard your heart, too. I guard your heart by thinking of what I say, considering how my words, my thoughts, will affect how you think, feel, relate. I guard your heart by keeping to myself that which would hurt you, that which will weigh your heart, that which will mar, taint, color who you see, how you see them.

Because it’s not guarding anyones heart when hurt turns to poison and my scars become your prejudice.

So I guard my heart, and I guard yours, and together, we grow to be whole, to be wise, and to be more like Him, broken and all.

~Natalia

Spicy Ramen

I bought Ramen tonight,

which is odd because there’s not much appealing about Ramen,

except maybe the price.

But I wanted it, so 97 cents bought me three packs of Just Add Water Ramen.

I microwaved one bowl and took two bites,

but something was missing;

something quite important was missing from my late dinner.

Because it’s two years ago now, Manuel and Tere slept at the orphanage,

and Karen, Manuelito, Ana, little Beki and I?

We stayed home.

The cousins came over and we locked the door tight, like Hermana Tere said,

and we pulled kitchen chairs around to the TV,

and we watched Inception until 3am,

and we ate Ramen.

It’s the same pack, the same styrofoam bowl and Fill to Here water line,

but this is Mexico and we value our flavor,

savor our spice.

And we sat around the TV slurping soggy noodles, red Salsa Valentina swirling together

with packet-flavored chicken broth.

That Ramen was spicy.

And tonight I sat at my desk and picked at noodles that lacked spice,

really lacked spice.

The Roommate was going downstairs, and I followed her there,

still picking my noodles because

I’m hungry.

And down the hall, through the Tunnel, people are eating here,

people are ordering here in the Commons,

and I smelled every single hot sauce they had,

and I ended up dumping Chipotle Tabasco sauce all over my noodles,

which were quickly getting cold.

And that fixed the problem, and I slurped them right down,

and it felt so familiar because my mouth burned and my nose ran,

and it was just like that late night in Mexico.

And a preached this week said God has a purpose in everything,

but sometimes it’s hard to imagine,

hard to comprehend,

that He puts meaning, that He has deep purpose,

in a night spent eating spicy Ramen and watching Inception,

while the dogs across the street barked

and someone, somewhere, set off a firework.

But every time I get close to wondering,

I realize that it’s not my job to question His decisions,

His grace, His gifts.

So I ate my chipotle Ramen, and I thought about Mexico,

and I thanked Him for time

relationships,

lessons,

gifts,

that He’s given me.

~Natalia

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