Christmases past

2013.12 silhouetteAs a teenager I spent Christmas Eve at the dance. My town in Mexico had a dance almost every day during the last few weeks of December, between holidays, weddings, quinceañeras, and other celebrations. It was the most convenient for families to gather during the holidays from across Mexico and the US. So, Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve invariably found me, my sister and our friends at a dance.

At midnight, though, most of our friends would start an exodus. At a quarter to midnight we’d all gather our coats and purses, and make the trek across the plaza (often in the cold and rain) to go to midnight mass. We’d all stand in the back and stay there for the 30 minutes or so of mass. Some of us would take communion, some wouldn’t, but we’d all return to the dance once mass was over. This was a tradition for us, every year, for Christmas and New Year’s.

Now I spend Christmas Eve with my family, in a quiet celebration. I’ve come a long way.

What was your Christmas tradition?

Tips for Driving in Mexico

Trans-America Journey has a great post with some tips on car trips in Mexico. I didn’t see anything here about safety, but there are some good points.

I would have added some info from the US Consulate in Mexico for information on taking your car into Mexico, etc. I might have mentioned don’t drive at night, stay on main roads, check in frequently, and let people know where you’re going. I also might add ‘DON’T GO unless you have to.”

But for those making the trip for the very first time, this is what was covered in the Trans-America post:

  • Fuel is cheaper in Mexico than it is in the US
  • There is only one gas station chain in Mexico
  • All gas stations are full service in Mexico
  • You can use a GPS in Mexico–sort of
  • Better yet, buy a Guia Roji
  • Pay  Highway vs. Free Roads
  • The Green Angels make AAA look like a racket
  • Topes are a bitch
  • Hoy no circula!
  • Shakedown breakdown
  • Mexicans are not bad drivers (they just have some wacky habits)
  • Not all Mexican auto insurance is created equal
  • You can’t beat a Mexican car wash


a foodie trip

(Pre-written while in Mexico; posted safely from the US.)

I have a bizarre concept of a vacation in Mexico (at least I think it’s bizarre). I don’t visit here to see the sights; in truth I rarely make it out of my little town in northern Nuevo Leon. I don’t visit here for the shopping; shopping has never appealed to me, even while in the US. I barely visit for the socializing; I don’t actually visit relatives and old friends, don’t look up acquaintances and go to new places to meet new people. The trip to Mexico is a necessity, I drive my mother to visit my Grandmother, and then I play chauffeur to all the errands that need to be made while I’m here.

I do, however, visit here for the food. Or maybe I should say that the food is an added allure.

I live in Houston, which is a city where you can get almost any kind of food you’ll ever want. And finding good Mexican food is not a problem, even authentic Mexican food is abundant in that city. Tell me what kind you want and I can probably find a restaurant that makes a really good version of it. But no matter how good the food is in Houston, it’s always better in Mexico.

Milanesa, shrimp cocktail, hamburguesa especial, nopalitos, barbacoa, chicharrones, comida corrida, tortillas from the tortilleria, carne asada, capirotada, carne seca, dulce de frijol, dulce de leche, and so on, and so on, and so on… To me, a trip to Mexico is a trip that revolves around food.

I have my favorite places, from the Mom and Pop restaurants in town that are open whenever the owners feel like opening to the more business-like and bigger restaurants in larger neighboring towns where the bill tells you how much you own in Pesos and in Dollars (based on how much the dollar is that week).
Then there’s the carnicerias (butcher shops) where you can pick up cooked meats including barbacoa and chicharrones. I’ve found barbacoa in Houston, but haven’t been able to find a place that makes this kind of chicharron. And there’s no tortilla that tastes as good as the ones that have just been picked up from the tortilleria (hot off the tortilla press, as it were).

My mother smiles indulgently as an order a hamburger here — made with fried ham, white queso fresco, avocado, and bacon as well as diced lettuce, a grilled ground beef patty, and a toasted bun. I’ve found only one place in Houston that has something close to that sandwich, and it’s still not the same. Milanesa here has that crispy yet tender flavor that makes me crave it and ensures that it’s one of the first things I indulge in when we arrive. In fact, I order some from a local restaurant on my first day here. The raspa place in front of the plaza makes the best corn in a cup — fried corn on the cob, they cut off the kernels and put them in a cup, add mayo, lemon juice, cream, and picante sauce, then stir. Trust me; it’s much yummier than it sounds. Breakfast has been chorizo con huevo (Mexican sausage with eggs) or machacado or huevos con salsa, always with homemade flour tortillas.

My grandmother made us tamales, and cooked me a dish made with nopales for dinner one night. We’ve had simple lunches that have been no more than flour tortillas and sliced avocados, and elaborate dinners that included homemade refried beans and roasted chicken and steak and other things. And that’s just the stuff I remember.

The funny thing is that I don’t actually gain weight while I’m here. The truth is that, while I do indulge in favorite foods and treats, I don’t eat as much or as often as I do when I’m in Houston. So it evens out.

Still, I do look forward to the food every visit. And I don’t think that’s going to change any time soon.

Follow the Mexico tag for all posts in this series.

a family tragedy

Paloma Cruz

(Pre-written while in Mexico; posted safely from the US.)

For all that I’ve spoken and written about the overwhelming fear in Mexico (the part I visited) and my knowledge of the violence happening in the surrounding areas, for some strange reason I never really expected to be directly affected by it. As if I thought I could come down here, to the middle of a drug war (with an emphasis on the “war” part) and not be touched by the reality of it.

That’s not the case.

Let me preface this by saying that I know that I have members of my family who are less than reputable. We keep contact to a minimum, but family is family. We can’t choose them. My family is not me, and they are not representative of myself and my siblings.

Today we got a call that two uncles were tortured and killed in Tamaulipas (and I won’t name the exact place in this blog). Both were my father’s brothers. Both were estranged or semi-estranged from my branch of the family. Both are dead.

Reports are sketchy right now. There are lots of rumors and not enough facts.

One uncle, the youngest brother, I hadn’t seen in nearly 15 years. I knew which town he lived in (recently) but there had been no contact at all. And, because of the type of acrimonious relationship he’d had with us, I never missed him. But I’d never heard of him being involved in anything illegal, never been told that he’d started associating with that kind of activity. I don’t want to believe that that was the case. For some reason, it all still seems unreal.

The other uncle, the second to youngest of my Dad’s brothers, was my uncle twice over (he was also married to my mother’s sister). Yes, two brothers married two sisters. He and my aunt had four boys and a girl, children who are my closest relatives (DNA-wise). He had served time in an American prison for… something (I don’t remember what) and came to live in Mexico after being released. I had heard that he was actively involved with illegal activities, that he was making money by being an errand boy, or something low-key like that. In other words, not a solid citizen.

I remember my Dad helping out his youngest brother by putting up the money to start a business in Rio Grande, and the business failed. My father put a great amount of effort to try and help his youngest brother to find something that would suit him, something at which he’d be a success. But one failure followed another, followed another. Eventually, my uncle decided he didn’t need my father’s help (or got angry because my father refused to keep signing checks on failing ventures) and he just left and fell off the grid. He wouldn’t call or return phone calls. And he never visited my father, even in the eight years my father was in a nursing home with Parkinson’s disease. As I said, we were not close.

My other uncle, the one with the colorful background, was frequently in some sort of trouble. For the first twenty years of my life, the only grandkids on my Dad’s side of my family were my siblings and those cousins (with the close DNA). My Dad made sure they had enough money for rent and food and school, while their father was in prison or “away” somewhere or just plain not working. We all grew up in the same cities, the same towns, in the same schools, with the same relatives. And, while we should have had a similar childhood, we were worlds apart. They were raised to resent us (because we had more and wouldn’t share, my aunt would frequently tell anyone who would stop to listen) and we learned to resent them because any time we wanted something new my Dad would tell us we couldn’t have it because it would make our cousins feel bad (because they didn’t have anything).

But I should point out that it was my uncle, with the colorful background, who checked up on my grandmother (his mother-in-law) at least once a week to make sure she was OK. When my grandmother was ripped off by a cabinet-maker, it was my uncle who handled getting the authorities involved so my grandmother could eventually get a full refund. He was the one who made sure that a cousin of his who had appropriated some of my father’s things (shortly before my father died) gave us monetary restitution for the items in question. And, after my Dad died (actually, once my Dad was diagnosed with Parkinson’s), he never asked us for anything, never imposed, never brought trouble to our doors. He did that a lot when my Dad was alive and well, when my Dad could fix things or be the face and the voice for the family. And I give him credit for making sure that didn’t happen again once my Dad was unable to take care of things.

The stories being told about their deaths include that Mexican officials or members of a rival organization killed both uncles at one of their homes. We’re told that my aunt was there and wasn’t killed because her husband shielded her from bullets. Other stories say that she was locked in another room and spent the night listening to her husband and brother-in-law being tortured, then killed. We’re not certain what actually happened. What we do know is that both uncles are dead.

We’ve been trying to reach my cousins (none of whom live in Mexico) to find out the truth of what happened. So far we haven’t had any luck. We want to know what happened, how my aunt is, what happens next. We want to know if the family is safe.

My mother worries about going to visit her sister in a town where beheadings and shootouts are an everyday occurrence. And she worries about telling my sisters about the deaths because she doesn’t think it’s safe for them, and their families, to travel here for the funeral. She especially worries about my GI Joe brother, who would come in confrontation mode and, she thinks, talk himself into trouble via attitude.

I don’t disagree with her on any of this. And that’s saying something, as I sit in a place where I think it’s too dangerous for my siblings to visit. I know that my mother is very scared right now. I know that we probably won’t be going to the funeral (reprisals against family members are common, even if they aren’t involved in… whatever). And I know that two men I’ve known my entire life are dead, and all my father’s siblings are now dead. And, no matter what my relationship with them, I mourn their passing and feel rage at the way they died.

Follow the Mexico tag for all posts in this series.

Mexico Through the Eyes of its Children

If you have time, you should check out this great exhibit at the Houston Public Library’s Central Library:

Mexican Photo Exhibit

mexican photo exhibit

Mexico Through the Eyes of its Children | México visto por sus niños

The City of Houston, Houston Public Library, and the Houston Library Foundation in collaboration with the Consulate General of Mexico in Houston cordially invite you to the opening reception of the photography art exhibition Mexico Through the Eyes of its Children.

Featuring 40 photographs taken by children between the ages of 8 and 15, from the states of Chiapas, Hidalgo, Puebla, Oaxaca, Michoacán, and Mexico City who participate in the community centers of the Fund for the Children of Mexico.

Exhibit on view
May 5 – June 11, 2009
M – Th 9 am – 9 pm | F – Sat 9 am – 6 pm | Sun 1 – 5 pm