I’ve grown up catching glimpses of my mom’s upbringing in Southern California — the countless days at the beach, her modeling stints for UCLA art students and school pamphlets, and the numerous jobs she took on to afford luxuries like purses and new clothes. I’ve always loved to listen to her when she opens up about her life before me, whether she’s telling an oft-repeated story or one that leaves me reeling in surprise and disbelief.
My mom and I are close, and I thought I’d gotten all I could out of her when I was going through my cultural rediscovery stage in high school. It seems that I briefly forgot who my mom is, and went into this interview not expecting a lot of surprises, even planning to interview another family member if it proved to be unilluminating.
I learned much from this interview about the role that Mexican cuisine has played throughout my mom’s life, and what it means to her. She is full of stories and lived experiences regarding many topics, and this one is no different. (Also, she let some classified information slip and I accidentally uncovered the existence of a new family member. In the words of a close friend I called about the revelation, “Your family is so mysterious,”).
My mom’s name is Luz Marina; she has never gone by her first name in her life and prefers Marina. (I love her first name, but whenever I ask her why she dislikes it, she just wrinkles her nose). She grew up throughout the ’70s and ’80s in Southern California. She moved to El Paso in her early 20s, where she met my dad.
Ariana: What did you grow up eating?
L. Marina: My mother [my Grandma Eva] wasn’t your traditional great Mexican cook. She worked very long hours, so by the time she came back home she had to concoct something really quick. Her go-to was a picadillo-style which was, picadillo with whatever protein we had. It’s based with onions and potatoes and it’s like a stew, steak was like a super highlight, it wasn’t often when we did have it, but when it was it was a real treat.
She would sometimes do it with just the potato, and always paired with frijoles de olla, which is another bean soup with onions and tomatoes. Sometimes when she was in a creative mood she would also do something like Spam as a protein in the picadillo, which is kinda funny.
A: So your mom worked — both your parents worked — and your mom was the one who cooked?
L.M.: When she did get home, she would do something quick, because everyone was hungry.
A: When did you start to cook, and why did you want to?
L.M.: Um, well, like I said, my mother wasn’t a great cook, which a lot of other family members of ours, like our aunts, were. That was something that was very much standard. So she would do where she could, and it was great, but I was kind of a brat in regards to that. I always knew that I wanted more. I wanted something better, more variation, so I would definitely be the child that would give her a hard time like, ‘I want this, I want that!’
What was a real treat for is sometimes she would, maybe three times in a week, she would bring home different variations of Asian food, Korean food, Japanese food. Where she worked in Irvine she worked at the Allergen Company.
Most of the people that worked there, the majority were Asian, and it was my mother and maybe four Mexican-American people who would bring their food. They would have like a big potluck for lunch, there was lots of food left over, and she had a real good friend, Mr. Wu, who aways brought the most food and would always pack a little to-go dinner for my mother’s family.
A: As far as your neighborhood went, what kind of neighborhood did you grow up in?
L.M.: Well, it was middle-class, predominantly Anglo. Where we lived, it was a really long block, almost a mile. We were one of two Latino families; my friend Judy was from Colombia and lived down the street, and we were the other Latino family. And it was just a different time. It looked very different from what it looks like now, you’ve got a lot of different — it’s a melting pot now. You’re not gonna see any Anglos there anymore.
A: What about your high school? Were there any other Mexican-American people?
L.M.: Oh yeah, sure there were. But it was a predominantly Anglo school.
A: I want to go into how your relationship with Mexican food began. So you said that when it came to your mom’s cooking, you didn’t really like it that much?
L.M.: Well, because we had our aunts and we would compare — y’know, she wasn’t a great cook, like all the others.
A: Right, and you were aware of that? And you gave her a hard time about it?
L.M.: I did, I was… not very nice. I was very vocal about that, like ‘No, there’s gotta be something more!’, and ‘I want this!’, and ‘I want more Asian food!’ and she was like, ‘Well, this is what we’re having for dinner.’
A: What kinds of foods did she make?
L.M.: She would make tacos de papa, sopita which — her arroz, it was, kinda crunchy. That’s how you knew it was my mom’s, right off the bat. You knew that she made that arroz. Even today people have the hardest time making rice the perfect texture, it’s challenging.
So going back, I understood. I got that she wasn’t a strong cook. And then to have her rice always like … not completely cooked, but she would do tostadas de frijol with queso, and she always did the white cheese.
Growing up in Mexico, her thing was white cheese. They didn’t sell that at the grocery store, so she’d buy the blocks of Monterey Jack. The other cheese, like that orange cheese was like, ‘What is that?’ So she would never skimp on our cheese.
A: When it came to more Americanized foods like lunch meats and sandwiches, did you guys eat that too?
L.M.: We would, and in Mexico those are called tortas, or lonches de torta.
A: Wait, don’t tortas use a specific bread though?
L.M.: Yeah, sometimes she would go and get it at the mercado, ’cause in parts of Santa Ana you would be able to get a lot of our traditional Mexican foods.
A: So she’d go and she’d buy the bread to make tortas?
L.M.: Yeah, the bolillos.
A: Did American food play into your upbringing?
L.M.: She would occasionally surprise us and make spaghetti. And uh, it wasn’t great, but my dad always made it a point that hey, she works very hard and when we get home we would always eat dinner together, and we were gonna eat and be, you know. I always gave her a hard time, I feel bad looking back.
My dad was always very vocal about that, ‘It’s time to sit down, we’re gonna have our meal, mom cooked this. She’s completely tired but she still managed to put dinner on the table, so we are going to be thankful.’ And of course, me being the brat child, I would take a taste of her spaghetti, I just. I probably wasn’t the nicest. I would speak with my eyes, I guess.
A: How did that play into when you started to cook?
L.M.: I wanted something more, and I wanted to try it all and do it all. Julia Childs, I would flick through the tv and occasionally see her show. What attracted me to her was her style of cooking, and her voice was always just, it was funny. It was really cool to watch. I wanted to help cook and I knew that, she needed help. She was tired when she got home and tried to fix something really quick. And she always had dinner on the table, no matter what it was. But it wasn’t enough for me.
My sister was about six or seven, so I was about eight or nine. But even earlier than that, I remember helping my mom in the kitchen. I just thought it was the coolest thing, all these gadgets and being in the kitchen. It bothered me that young, other people — or specifically men — being in the kitchen. That bothered me, I did not like that. I don’t know what it was, but I remember being like, ‘Oh no! This is MY area.’ I didn’t know anything, I was so little and always watching my mom.
Once she let me chop carrots, which was like, the biggest mistake, you should never let a child cut carrots, because carrots are rough and your knife can… y’know, I cut myself. And I remember being like, I didn’t want to tell my mom and let her know that I was hurt, because then she wouldn’t let me back into the kitchen.
Anyway, much earlier. I always had that, I wanted to be in there, that was gonna be my space.
A: I know that you’d always get annoyed when we [my siblings and I] were in the kitchen, and we’re in your area as you’re trying to get stuff ready, and you’re just like, ‘Get out of my kitchen! Get out of here!’ You always scared me, you were so mean. [Note: My siblings and I would mainly hover around her to get a taste of what she was making rather than help out.]
L.M.: I really shouldn’t have done that, because everyone needs to learn basic cooking. That’s a mistake. When your dad would come into the kitchen, I was like ‘Ugh, out out out!’
A: So you started to cook because you wanted to?
L.M.: It evolved out of frustration of ‘Ugh, this is really all I’m gonna eat? This is what I’m gonna have?’ I was so mean to my mama, and I know I didn’t start off being vocal about it, it was just my body language and my eyes. Then it went to, ‘We cannot just have this.’ I’m sure I made her feel kind of, y’know. She was always a great sport, she was always just really tired, moreso, really tired all the time. She never complained.
A: Did you learn how to cook basic Mexican food from her?
L.M.: No, no. Not at all. All her basic cooking, I could do that with my eyes closed. I wanted more, that wasn’t enough for me. She gave me that first step. I still remember watching her as a little girl. She was so glamorous, she’d put on that little apron and I mean, as tired as she was, I just thought that was the coolest thing. Like, ‘Oh, there’s my pretty mom, in the kitchen cooking.’
We then went off on a tangent about school lunches and the very particular way that my grandma makes sandwiches. I love her, but they’re kind of weird, and she uses a strange kind of too-sweet orange dressing on them with weird meat and cheese combinations. But you bet that I eat everything she makes without complaint. (She’s such a sweet lady with a gentle disposition, I have no idea how my mom could stomach being so mean to her).
My mom told me that my grandma never packed Mexican food for lunch, it was always sandwiches, so she and her siblings were spared the dreaded lunchtime experience of many Mexican-Americans. My grandma would make the sandwiches the night before, since she went to work very early in the morning. She would be at work by 6:30 a.m. and get home around five, make dinner, then make lunches for three children.
My mom’s dad, my Grandpa Rudy, was born in San Angelo, Texas to a family of migrant workers. He speaks fluent English and Spanish, while my Grandma Eva — who was born
and raised in Ciudad Juarez — speaks Spanish much more fluently than English. My mom even remembers my Grandma Eva taking English classes to get better at the language. My grandpa would speak to them in English. As is common in many families, my grandma would speak Spanish to her children and over time, they would respond only in English.
My mom brought up how it was frowned upon to speak Spanish in school, so it wasn’t something she practiced outside the house very often. My mom emphasizes that she didn’t even notice or become conscious of her loss of Spanish until she moved to El Paso and met my dad, whose first language is Spanish and who still speaks it fluently.
From Santa Ana to El Paso
A: When did you start to see cooking as a way to connect to your culture?
L.M.: Later, when I moved here and married my husband. My mother-in-law, she is just an amazing cook of Mexican food. She’s incredible. She would make everything from scratch, and I was like, whoa. I wanted to learn that. And my husband was already used to this grand Mexican food, so I had some big shoes to fill. And I already loved cooking anyway, I can cook all kinds of different foods, but when that happened, that’s when I was like ok, I have to up my Mexican cooking game.
I mentioned how the lunches my mom made me growing up were not exclusively Mexican. I remember she would experiment a lot and feed me things like Shepherd’s Pie; I was never picky and always ate what she gave me, even if I thought it looked weird.
A: How did your upbringing and everything relate to your later choice to learn how to make it?
L.M.: That’s when I knew, that’s a whole other world. You dive in and the water is deep, deep. I was like wait, there are many levels of Mexican cooking that I didn’t even tap into.
I would watch my suegra, she didn’t keep books or write anything down. I could watch and I could mimic. I took that, and then on my own started studying cookbooks and “The Art of Mexican Cooking.”
A: Wait, the one by Diana Kennedy?
L.M.: Well, that was a gift from my suegra, which is kind of funny—
A: Really, Grandma Celia gave you that book? She looked through it and she was like, ‘yeah this works.’? [Note: Grandma Celia does not speak English.]
L.M.: Yes, it’s kind of weird! Well, she had my brother-in-law, her firstborn, Gabriel — your dad’s brother — he okayed it.
A: Wait. Waaait. Wait, what? Who? Gabriel? What?
L.M.: Uh-huh, your Uncle Gabriel.
A: Wait, that’s a brother? Or a cousin?
L.M.: Her first son. That is her first son.
A: Wait, I thought dad — oh, whaaaat. Wait, who is — oh, wow.
My Uncle Gabriel (who I’ve just casually never met and was never told anything about until this moment) is my Grandma Celia’s first son and my dad’s half-brother. My mom thinks he was born in Mexico.
A: Are you serious? Mom, I’ve never met him, what is going on—
L.M.: You met his daughter. Yeah, you did.
A: This is wild. I didn’t even know dad had another brother. Wait, so how many siblings is that, there’s — Uh.
L.M.: Let’s go back to the cooking.
A: Jesus. Wait, why do we not speak of him? What’s going on?
We went back to the cooking.
My mom cites my Grandma Celia as her biggest influence when it comes to Mexican cooking. My Grandma Celia was born in the Central Mexican city of Aguascalientes and, according to my dad, grew up in a monastery there.
She was mentored in cooking by nuns because she, by her own admission, was never very good at school. Rather than going to classes, she absorbed their lessons in making the meals. My mom then mentioned that my dad’s dad, Nicolás, had sisters who were also great cooks. There was a kind of competition between my grandma and her sister-in-laws about whose cooking was the best.
A: Are you satisfied with what you know about Mexican food?
L.M.: Yes, I am.
A: So that’s it, you’re done learning?
L.M.: Mmm, no, because there’s still making certain Mexican foods even better. Always improving simple elements like, for instance, I’ve always disliked having tortillas that were too thick, or too chewy. So how to improve on that. Take for example, when you make empanadas. It wasn’t enough for me to make dessert empanadas, I wanted to make it like the Columbians, make real food out of it. (Note: My mom doesn’t really like baking sweets.)
A: Everything that you’ve learned over the years: What do you think about Mexican food? What’s your impression of it?
L.M.: I think it’s one of the greatest cuisines in the world, absolutely.
A: What about it do you think distinguishes it from other places?
L.M.: I think that every type of different food is special, but Mexican food for me just warms my heart. It took me to a different stage in my life where I wanted to be a better cook, to take those ideas of my husband eating his mother’s cooking and, I thought, I want him to be happy like that when it’s my turn to start cooking for him. Generally, I love cooking anyway, that just amplified it even more.
A: Obviously in a lot of cultures, it’s the women doing the cooking and passing on the traditions and stuff. When it comes to Mexican traditions specifically, the women are always up doing stuff to prepare the food, and the men just kinda sit there. Did you ever feel resentful of it?
L.M.: Resentful? No, I just have anxiety when it comes to preparing a party for many mouths to feed. I can cook up a lot of food, but when it’s like 25-30 people, I just get some anxiety over it. But I love to cook. I know that makes me happy, and it’s something that I want to do, to feed everyone, ’cause that makes people happy.
A: But what do you think about that cultural norm?
L.M.: It can be anyone, I think that’s silly. Yes traditionally in our culture, it’s always been the women. The woman is in charge of these things, and men don’t. But nuh-uh, not anymore. I have amazing chef friends who are men that cook incredible food. I think, whatever pleases the heart.
A: Right, but when men are chefs, they get acclaimed, they’re celebrated and they can make careers off of it. But in the culinary world, women don’t really — there are a lot less women who are successful chefs, there are more barriers to that. It’s interesting, because at the same time women are expected to labor without being put on that pedestal that male chefs get. What do you think about that?
L.M.: I think that’s silly, Ari. I think that people cook for different reasons and there shouldn’t be a gender that’s designated for cooking.
A: Right, but what do you think that says about how there’s this expectation that the woman expected to do all the cooking, whereas when men cook, it’s to get famous and critical acclaim and make money and cookbooks.
L.M.: That’s a lot of [redacted.]