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Confessions of a Tortilla Thief

By: Amelia Rose Newcomer-Leas, Bloomington, USA
2006 Travel and Transitions travel story contest participant

Tortillas felt like skin to me, warm and moist and protected by the clean clothes of a dishcloth in the woven basket that squatted on the table.  You have to baby tortillas, buy them fresh, wrap them in newsprint, keep them covered.  Even when dipping your hand into the basket, you must be sure to flip back the cloth so that they don't lose their heat or elasticity.  Once a tortilla is dried out, there's nothing you can do to make it fresh again.  You can warm it on the stove or in the microwave but it's a
poor imitation.  A dead tortilla is like an ugly husband, functional but disappointing. 
I was barely 21 and lonely in Mexico. 

I was living as a foreign exchange student in Cuautla, Morelos, about two hours south of Mexico City.  Cuautla has the distinction of being the last resting place of Emiliano Zapata, the great revolutionary and archetypical Mexican patriot. It is a small town, very proud of its footnote in Mexican history.  It is a popular destination for Mexican, but not foreign, tourists.  Besides Zapata's tomb, families from Mexico City come to bathe in the ancient balnearios, the hot sulfur springs nicknamed "Agua Hedionda" or Stinking Waters.  The urbanites are looked askance by Cuautla citizens and they describe such tourists like we describe New Yorkers in the Midwest.   My host families referred the encroachers as chilangos, which my mama defined as a fish who strays from its native waters. 

 I felt like a chilango myself.   I had come full of naïve enthusiasm and was horrified by my incompetence and fear.  It's a common story but I took it hard.  I have been obsessed with culture and language since I could totter and as an adolescent I wept as I read the biographies of brave exiles and ex-patriots.  Now I wept out of shame.  I knew about culture shock but I secretly believed that it would not touch me.  After all, I had studied Spanish for six years, I flew through my cultural anthropology courses and I hung out with international students while passionately and inarticulately discussing politics and the deplorable state of American, well, everything. 

I was down with cultural relativity and spicy food.  If culture shock happened at all, it would be like a passing cold. What I got was more like walking pneumonia. So, faithful student that I was, I did the only thing I knew how to do.  I worked.  I walked everywhere, braved the terrifying combi buses; I did my grammar homework like I was preparing for the Foreign Service exam.  I sketched every monument and street scene, tried to memorize the family tree of my host family and I recorded every new phrase in a pocket notebook. Still, the words wouldn't come, and I functioned like a slow child, now humiliated because I was doing the
best I could.

My other balm besides work was food.  Food was my daily adventure.   It was a mandated break from frantic studying and, best of all, I didn't have to speak Spanish to it.  Tortillas were my favorite. Warm and pungent with a grainy velvet texture and chewy consistency, pale as my foreign flesh, they were the closest to uncomplicated human contact that I had.  Their particular smell and heat reminded me of my mother's body when I was small and pressed against her for comfort.
Maybe it was the corn thing.  I'm from Indiana, the land of cornfields and I appreciated the place of maize in Mexican culture.  According to an indigenous
creation story, the first people emerged from a cornstalk and in the relief carvings that trace the city ruins; important people are denoted by corn plants growing out of their heads.  The tortilla, made of corn and water and fat, has been the sustaining
food of Mexicans for over 500 years.  To consume tortillas has become a mark of Mexican identity in both Mexico and the United States.

Moreover, they are cheap as hell and this is what officially sealed my Latin love affair with tortillas.  I hadn't yet adjusted to the Mexican meal schedule and would be famished at hours everyone else found outrageous.  Since I was a guest, my host mother refused to let me cook anything for myself, but I was embarrassed to put her to trouble.   So I became a tortilla thief, sneaking them out of the basket
between meals, peeling off a few to stash in my room, tearing them apart and swallowing them quickly. I began to buy them on the sly too, and eat them after my morning classes.  There was a tortillería on the way to the combi bus stop and I would buy 8 tortillas wrapped in dusty rose newsprint from the harried shop owner.  No one ate plain tortillas, especially in the public street, and I added that to
my list of tortilla crimes.

I also began to sneak into the churches, between masses during the day and the evenings.  I liked the stillness and the sense of longing that permeated the walls of the chapels.  I have a checkered religious past; my mother is a devout but unconventional Christian raised by an Italian Catholic and a German Mennonite.  She is a modern day mystic that talks to God on long car trips and is visited by angels.  My father is an intellectual who swung between the all-knowing God of his farm childhood and the rational god of science.  My stepfather believes in integrity
and the Indiana Pacers.  So I grew up without a specific creed but taught that God was in everything. I wanted desperately to believe but was confused on exactly what that entailed.  Mostly, I wanted forgiveness and sense that I was not alone.  And now, away from everything that was familiar, away from everything I thought I knew about myself and the world, I wanted to feel that more than ever.  I knelt in front of the chapel of the Virgin of Guadalupe, I repeating silently in my head, over and over again, my own desperate rosary,

"Are you there?  Are you there?
Are you there?"   I confessed to Her that I was not Mexican, I was not Catholic, I was not even baptized,  "But I think we can make this work," I insisted.  I told her my litany of sins: I couldn't speak Spanish the way it should be spoken; I couldn't stop myself from arguing with my Mexican father; I couldn't relax and I couldn't stop eating tortillas.  The Mother of God smiled at me.  I thanked Her politely for Her time, stood up, lit a candle and made my way back home.   I usually bought a packet of tortillas along the way.  

The breaking point came the day my host family was gone during the afternoon comida.  My host mother had left some soup in the refrigerator and a note to go
ahead and eat, she was at church, my sisters were at a friend's house, and my father was away on business.  I had a few pesos in my pocket and I decided to buy
tortillas like every other woman in Mexico, right before the afternoon comida at the neighborhood tortillería.  I put on my earrings, shut the gate behind me, and walked to the shop.  There was a crowd of women there, most with their children and leaking bags of sopa de frijoles from the market vendors. When it was my turn at the counter, I asked for a quarter kilo of tortillas.  The tortillera stared at me quizzically.  "There is only one type of kilo," she said gently. 

"Yes, I would like a quarter kilo." I said.  She shrugged and slapped an entire kilo of tortillas on the rose newsprint.  "But I only want a quarter I said in faltering Spanish.  The women behind me shifted impatiently (so I imagined) and the tortillera
explained once again, that there was only one kind of tortilla.  I trudged home, weighed down by an ungodly amount of processed corn and wondering what the diablo I was going to do with it.  Like I said, tortillas don't keep.  That afternoon I ate more tortillas that I had ever eaten, trying to reduce the number I had to leave in the basket because throwing them out seemed wasteful.  I wrapped them in the dishcloth and hoped no one would notice my tortilla faux pas. 

The next morning at breakfast my host mother asked me if I had been very hungry yesterday. 

"No," I said.

"Why?" 
"Well, you bought so very many tortillas. Did I not
leave enough food, Amelita?"  Dammit.
"No, Pilar, I don't know what I did wrong, I asked the lady for only a few."
"What did you say to her?"  I repeated the phrase I thought I had heard from her a million times and she began to giggle.

"Amelita, you asked for a corto, not a cuarto.  Corto is short, cuarto is quarter. You asked la tortillera for a short kilo."   Pilar laughed then grew serious, "but she should have been able to tell you are a foreign student and explained it to you.  I will talk to her."  I was accosted by a vision of my host mother, hands flying, berating the women of the tortillería for not taking my stupidity sufficiently into account.  I imagined the incident spreading through the Cuautla gossip network and never being able to buy a tortilla again.

"Really, Pilar, it's not necessary."  She let it go and turned back to the stove. I finished my breakfast in silence and left for school.

I stomped to the combi stop, angry at myself, the whole world in general and Mexico in particular-I had been once again unmasked for the gringa-gabacha-güerita that I was.  Couldn't even buy my own tortillas.  In Aztec and Mayan scrolls, a
girl's age and maturity was denoted by how many tortillas were depicted over her head.  I doubted I would even get cuarto of a tortilla.  I rode the combi in stony silence, daring anyone to be nice to me. At school, I sulked through three different kinds of verb conjugation and the vocabulary of the kitchen.  I sneered through Mexican history.  I muttered through Latin American literature. After class I took the bus to main plaza, the Zócalo, where my favorite church was located.  I walked in, set my backpack down, genuflected and knelt before the Queen of Heaven.  An
older woman was at the front pew fingering her rosary.  We were the only two in the church. 

"Hail Mary full of grace." I began. Then I stopped.
"I am weak and scared.  I am stupid and afraid.  I thought I could do this but I can't.  I can't.
"Nothing was the way I thought it would be.  I though I would slide into Mexico like pair of new boots.  I thought I would feel free.  All I feel is incompetent.
"What is wrong with me?  This wasn't the way it was supposed to be.  This is not who I am supposed to be.

There are people dying of poverty in sickness in this country and  people who have to struggle every day just get to lie down again at night.and I CAN'T EVEN
BUY TORTILLAS!"  I looked at Her straight in the eye.

"No one told me it would be this hard." 

The church was silent but outside I could hear the clack of the street vendor carts, children yelling, cars jostling each other.  "I tried to buy tortillas yesterday, and I said the wrong thing.  I asked for a short kilo.  I didn't even know I had made a mistake."
I looked up at the brown face of la Guadalupana and explained, "You see, corto and cuarto." She looked at me patiently, smiling.  "Cuarto and corto." The candles flickered, casting light on Her face that made Her seem to grin.  "Corto and cuarto." I began to giggle.   Then I laughed.  I tried to hide it so as not to offend the praying grandmother.  I rocked back and forth as if in ecstatic prayer, laughing with the Virgin.  "Ay niña."  I imagined Her sighing.  "Niña mía."

And so, on my knees, I began to reluctantly forgive myself for the unpardonable sin of imperfection. Maybe that is the true meaning of original sin, that we are born imperfect and full of grace, looking for salvation where we can find it, taking comfort where we can.  By the time I left Mexico, I had not yet regained my faith, but I had regained my hope.  And to my pride, I had learned to make tortillas by hand.
For days afterwards though, whenever I walked past the neighborhood tortillería, I imagined the ladies sighing sadly and saying.  "Pobrecita, she's not all there you
know. She asked me for a short kilo the other day. Dios mio!"

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