Cultural Survival: A Lesson from Jesus

By Cindy Gomez

Previously published in HPR May 5, 2011. Links have been updated.

Jesus is a woman’s name in Spanish too. It was my fraternal grandmother’s name as well as my fraternal grandfather’s. It’s a common name in Mexico.

Last year at exactly this time last year, I was working out the Mother’s Day issue of the High Plains Reader when we received word that Jesus, our grandmother, was in the hospital. That week, my editorial turned to the topic of mothers. I remarked on the sacrifices that mothers make for us; and remembered my own mother’s, and grandmother’s lives. But I never mentioned Jesus in the editorial. She died the next morning.

Arranging a passport on such short notice was impossible so I missed her funeral in Mexico City. But what really gnawed at me was that I had not written about my grandma Jesus in my editorial. I had wanted to, but had decided against it thinking that my mother might be offended at being exalted in the same editorial as her ex-mother in law.

Jesus was buried on Mother’s Day weekend, making my omission of her in our mother’s day issue all the more poignant. I had never thought of my grandmother as a “mother figure” before her death. She was way too cool for that. Despite being the epitome of a dignified woman, Jesus was fun and funny. Her lessons about life, love, self respect have been priceless to me.

Over the last year I have sensed my Abue (Gran) nearby in the sights and smells of Mexican food. Her cooking is one of my fondest memories. In fact, many of my memories about Abue revolve around food. Grandma taught about life in her kitchen. Most of the heart-to-heart talks we ever had happened in bed watching Mexican soap operas, or around food: in the kitchen, in the market place, at the bakery, or at the table.

The smells of hot Mexican breads and pastries. Fresh salsa with every meal. Abue’s almond mole. She put love into her food. It was always magnificent, piping hot, and punctual. She did not mess around about food, unless she wanted to make a point. When they were first married, Jesus and Jesus, were barely scraping by, so rather than demand a molcajete (a Mexican mortar and pestle used to make salsas and grind herbs and pastes) of her own she borrowed the neighbor’s. But, she finally got her molcajete one day after years of waiting for grandpa Jesus to buy her one after serving him a very special salsa. “I boiled all the tomatoes and peppers and then just squished them with my hands and put them in a bowl. ‘What’s this?’ he asked with a shocked face. I said, ‘That’s your salsa. I don’t have have a molcajete to make a better one and I’m tired of begging the neighbor for hers”.

I learned many lessons from Jesus too.

After years of Thanksgiving meals in the U.S., it never occurred to me there would be no such celebration in Mexico. So when I was living in Mexico City for a year, I figured my grandmother would probably make something grand that would be just as good as Thanksgiving in the U.S.

She served something that smelled quite good, but looked nothing like a turkey. There was no meat at all. No mashed potato, no green bean casserole, no cranberry sauce. Instead, in its place was a roll coated in egg. Inside, a broccoli or broccolini called huahzontle was stuffed with cheese and the whole dish was served in a spicy tomato sauce. Don’t get me wrong. It was good. But, at the time I was horrified at the idea of no turkey or—horror of horrors—no pumpkin pie. I never bothered to find out more about the food I was eating.

Christmas time was just as big a shocker. Instead of ham or turkey, we ate a dish called romeritos, a form of Mexican rosemary that tastes sort of like spinach. The stringy greens were served with small boiled waxy potatoes and shrimp patties all simmered in a dark chocolaty mole sauce. Romeritos, like the huahzontles from Thanksgiving, were another of meso-america’s lesser “vegetables” or potherbs that formed part of my ancestral heritage.

Ancestors of my past had been cultivating and eating many of these 2,000 some odd wild plants and herbs (the Nahual called the “Quilitl” and Mexicans today call them Quelites) for thousands of years. I had no clue why I ate turkey and ham and stuffed myself with so much food that it took months of dieting to fit back into my clothes for the fall semester. My grandmother took the time to serve me these foods, cherished for their nutritional, medicinal, and cultural value on the most important “American” holidays—Thanksgiving and Christmas. Now, years later, I realize the lessons of Jesus. She wanted me to eat food that fed me beyond the holidays.

Today, scientists, nutritionists, and historians all turn their eyes southward to reach a deeper understanding of the science and medicine behind Mexico’s gastronomy. For me, the journey of self-awareness is just beginning.

My Abue Jesus showed me history through food; culture through food; and love through food.
These are some of the most important life lessons a person can learn, and all of them are delicious in my memory. Knowledge of history and culture are essential to the self esteem of any person. Jesus gave me that.

On this year anniversary of her death, I want to honor my Abue on Mother’s Day. Thanks Jesus: for saving my cultural heritage, and helping me to preserve it for my kids.

By Cindy Azucena Gomez-Schempp

Cindy Azucena Gomez-Schempp is the Co-founder of The People’s Press Project, a media justice non-profit. She is also the host of A Mexican Crossing Lines. She’s an author, writer, and implements new media/social media outreach and web optimization, translating and cultural consulting services. Questions and comments:


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