The other day I saw a contest, sponsored by the Santa Barbara Writer’s Conference. For a chance to win a free pass, one could enter a 500-word essay on the topic, “What my mother taught me.” The deadline was within a couple of days, so I passed on the opportunity, but the topic stirred my thoughts.
I began to think about my first generation mother an orphan of Mexican parents who came to the U.S during the Mexican Revolution. She taught me a lifetime of lessons, many which she probably isn’t aware of.
So, in tribute to Mother’s Day and my mom, I have a few items to mention. Some of which you might find unusual, but in many Mexican households, not so uncommon.
My mom taught me to:
- Appreciate Mariachi music, the old classics, where buried pain could be unleashed in the drama of the song. She also taught me how to give a ‘grito,‘ a shout to punctuate the parts of the song that called for emphasis or which resonated with the listener.
- Value hard work. As young teens, all of us picked walnuts, tomatoes, or strawberries on weekends to earn money to survive. We heard many a story about her picking cotton until her arms and fingers bled, the scorching vineyards and lettuce fields. The moral of the story: You do what you got to do. She survived and we would too.
- Value education unless you want to live your life in the fields. This is almost a direct quote we heard many times. Mom was in her 40’s, a single parent of four kids, who worked full time and went to college at night during the late 60’s. By the early 70’s she earned two Bachelor’s degrees.
- Cook basic Mexican food and be creative with the welfare commodities. We learned how to make a guisado, beans de olla, tortillas (even though mine looked like the map of Texas), and nopales. We also made Spam and powdered eggs with chile, Mac and cheese, and grits.
- Use nature’s and grocery store remedies. For a cold, use Vapor Rub and put your socks on. For a tummy ache, use the Yerba Buena that grew under our front yard faucet. For nausea, drink 7Up. For a flu, use all three and bury yourself under the blankets.
- Duck, dive, and discipline. Mom had a baseball arm and threw her chancla (house slipper) when she’d had it with us. I swear that thing seemed like a magic boomerang. She didn’t spank us, at least not me and my sisters, but that threat of a nalgada kept us in line. Sometimes. All she had to do was flip her chancla off and we’d start running. Same thing as hearing her say, “Where’s my belt?” although she didn’t have one.
- Exercise starts at home. Mom won dance contests as a young woman. Trophies, cash money, and during WW II, she won a pig. Chicharrones for days! She still dances between her TV shows for exercise and cares for 30+ rose trees, fruit trees, and numerous potted plants.
- Self-defense. Mom was her older brothers sparring partner as a kid. I’ve seen her fight, many years ago and in self-defense, and she’s good. She often shadow boxed with us as kids. I do it with my own. It’s play boxing, never to draw blood, except this one time when my sisters jumped me for a jelly donut (true story).
- The value of family. As children, we regularly visited extended family, spending holidays and Sundays together. Now all my aunts and uncles on my mom’s side have passed on. Only she remains. My cousins and their children are still in her life.
- The enjoyment of books. I often remember her stories of reading up in her Elm tree in front of her house. After she was orphaned she’d spend hours away from her aunt and uncle, sitting on a tree branch reading a library book. Books filled our home early in our life. My first introduction to feminism, politics, Mexican and Chicano History came from her college texts.
- Faith. Growing up, I regularly saw my mom pray. We had a small altar under our staircase in our home. Glowing votives, saints, the works. She believed things would turn out, even when everything around us didn’t seem to be working out.
Happy Mother’s Day! Now, what did your mother teach you?