The other day I took my grandchildren to have some tamales. They sell them in the atrium of St. Vincents , after Spanish mass. It is the only mass in Spanish that I know about in the beautiful town of Petaluma, California.
I often go there because it makes me feel as though I am in the zócalo of one of many towns in my beloved country. The ice cream man arrives early and parks his cart full of fruit popsicles in one corner. Across from him the ladies get busy making tortillas on the comal. They also sell mesquites, snow cones and balloons. In the center is the fountain and the children – including my grandchildren – run around it, chasing the pigeons.
My grandson Lucas, who is nine years old, never misses an opportunity to accompany me. He loves Mexican food, especially chicken tamales. And so on that day, driven by the healthy appetite of a prepubescent boy, he pushed his little sister in the stroller towards the most fragrant stand of all: the tamales.
The tamale lady was very busy. She looked hot and overwhelmed. She was a large woman with graying braids, roughly about my age. She was laboring, sweating profusely over her huge, steaming pots. The line was getting longer and her husband, who stood beside her, was not helpful. The poor man was too slow. Handling the money was too confusing – he didn’t know how much to charge or what change to give back. Taking orders was also a challenge for him. He was not sure whether he should peel the husk before serving the tamales, or how many beans to serve on each plate. He didn’t get what dishes were for what. The napkins were flying about and the salsa spilled. He had no idea whether or not to charge for the horchata.
"Move over!" His wife scolded him, giving him a push with her generous hip. She snatched the money and the tamales and he just smiled, awkwardly.
Lucas looked at me with saucer eyes. That lady had a man’s voice and she was scary. I pretended that all was well and asked him to count the exact change to avoid any confusion. She is suffering from hot flashes, I thought, with empathy. Menopause can be hell – a nasty disease capable of transforming even the Virgin Mary into Cruella Deville.
When it was our turn, I didn’t dare order our food until the man was ready. I didn’t want his wife to hit him with a tamale right in front of my grandchildren. She, realizing that it I was waiting, snatched the money from his hand and shouted:
"¡Help the gringa! Rápido! Hurry up!"
And she pointed at me with her large spoon. It took me a minute to realize that I was the gringa.
"I am NOT a gringa, señora" I snapped.
The words bolted from the depths of my being. I startled myself! I am not one to yell at strangers but there I was, succumbing to another menopausal slip. It was fatigue, really, the accumulated weariness of living in this country for forty years and still having to defend and justify my Mexican origins. Every day people assume I'm from anywhere in the world except my beloved Mexico.
She was dumbfounded and stared at me as if I were an apparition.
"I'm a jarocha, lady" I said, with a softer voice and so there would be no question about my nationality I added "I am proudly Mexican."
The husband of the tamalera chuckled. Those witnessing the scene followed suit and laughed.
The tamale lady defended herself.
"Well. That’s what you get for being so white."
She was blushing and I felt bad. What did I gain by correcting the lady? What did it matter if she thought that I was gringa? She was just one more...
My grandson Lucas, who by nature is an ambassador of peace, saw fit to intervene in that awkward moment.
"My Abue (this is how he calls me) is Mexican and I'm also a little bit Mexican. I really like the tamales and coconuts."
He said it all very seriously in his best Spanish.
The lady behind us applauded and stroked his head.
"You speak Spanish beautifully, m'hijo" she said. Then she reached out her hand and introduced herself.
"Señora, your grandchildren are adorable. I am from Guerrero but I have many friends from Veracruz."
We continued the conversation while the man served our plates. He did a good job. We gave him the exact change and then went to eat under the shadow of the laurel tree. The tamales were delicious.
On our way back home, Lucas wanted to know what the word "gringa" means and why the lady thought I was a "gringa" and why no one thought I was Mexican, and why they had laughed when he said he was Mexican, and why, and why, and why ... "
"People have many skin colors, Lucas" I said. "Even Mexicans."
He thought about it.
"Like tamales! they have a different husks but inside they are all, you know? tamales."
"Exactly! Now, can I try your horchata?"
The man had gifted it to him when his wife was not looking.
It was coconut flavor.