After only three short days, I found myself sipping espresso at the terminal in Guadalajara and waiting to catch a flight back to Los Angeles. Having not visited my homeland in 17 years, three days was hardly enough time for me to put together a full picture of life in small-town Mexico, but it still left me with a lot to think about.
With its beautiful beaches, resorts, and an endless supply of piña coladas, visiting Mexico as a vacation destination is an incredible experience. However, my trip was strictly family-related, so the majority of my time was spent at my grandmother’s house with eight aunts and uncles. The entire trip was planned at a moment’s notice since my grandmother had become very ill. (She is, thankfully, recovering well now.)
My grandmother’s house is in a town called Tototlan, on the outskirts of Guadalajara. The birthplace of both of my parents, and home to a humble and simple life. The streets are extremely narrow with beat up cars and motorbikes that nearly take out pedestrians since there are no streetlights, and little law enforcement. Starbucks and Walmarts are nowhere to be found, only tiny outdoor markets and old ladies sitting outside their homes knitting.
The houses in Tototlan are built with bricks and have strong, underlying foundations. They’re old; they’ve been around for generations, typically have cement flooring or tiles, and contain an outdoor patio area in the center of the house. Many of them also double as butcheries and convenience stores.
In the distance, the church of San Agustín looms over the town with its tall, cathedral-esque towers. The architecture is beautifully dramatic and full of history from the 1800’s. The courtyard (known as la plaza) is the town’s central location for fiestas, markets, and gatherings of all ages. A statue of Saint Sabas Reyes can be found outside the church commemorating his efforts to protect the church from government persecution. In 1927, government troops commandeered his church and later was arrested, tortured, and beaten in order to give up the location of priests in hiding. He revealed no such information and so he died as a martyr. In May 2000, Saint Sabas Reyes was canonized by Pope John Paul II. Today, a temple dedicated to the saint is being built on a large hill that overlooks the entire valley with modern architecture and surrounded by glass.
Life runs at a slower pace in Tototlan, with a sense of peace and tranquility in the air. Instead of focusing on work, the town’s priorities usually center around family and food. In fact, planning each of the day’s meals is a pretty big deal since everything is home cooked and is usually prepared with a large family in mind. Even if you are eating out, the food is cooked in a kitchen at someone’s house or on the side of the street.
Breakfast typically happens at 9am. While I am accustomed to drinking black coffee and eating fruit in the morning, breakfast in Tototlan consists of a large plate of huevos rancheros or chilaquiles, refried beans, panela cheese, Mexican bread, and coffee brewed in hot milk. One morning, I took a stroll to the outdoor market to enjoy an authentic gordita. The lady making them gave me a puzzled look as I was the only one that seemed fascinated by the process, taking photos with my iPhone. Gorditas start off as a ball of dough made out of corn, and are fried in a giant pan with boiling oil made of pork fat to intensify the flavor. After the dough is crispy on the outside, the gordita is removed from the oil using a tortilla (how clever), and punctured with a back of the spoon to make a large hole.
“¿De que lo quieres?” the lady asked me what toppings I wanted.
“Rajas,” I replied, which are strips of green peppers. She then added a mountain of shredded cabbage, requesón (a creamy, spreadable cheese), and plenty of fresh salsa. The flavors were so unique that it would be almost impossible to replicate in the states. Simple yet extraordinary.
Around two o’clock every day, the streets are empty as families gather for la comida, or “the big meal.” It’s taken seriously, to say the least. Large plates of ceviche, slices of steak and potato in chili, fried pork chops, refried beans, mexican rice, and freshly made tortillas or mexican bread were among some of my favorite dishes. Afterwards, flan. And not just any flan. The creamiest and most decadent flan I’ve ever had. One night I even had the pleasure of tasting chocolate cake with flan on top. I nearly short circuited as I never dreamed I would eat such a luxurious combination.
As for dinner—usually served around 8 or 9pm—it isn’t anything extravagant, as it’s not considered the day’s main meal like it is here in the States. Refried beans, queso fresco or panela cheese, salsa, and tortillas served on a small plate. The simplicity is something I was very drawn to, and my nightly ritual consisted of refried beans, tortillas, and a cup of decaf, Nescafé coffee. Even though it started later than I’m used to, dinner still lasted several hours, and was full of good conversation that generally continued until midnight.
As a child, my grandmother’s house felt much larger, gloomier, and I believed the back room was haunted. Now, seventeen years later, the house felt calm and inviting. Coming full circle, my room for slumber was the back room I so dreaded going into as a kid. I was happy to report I had no encounters with spirits.
Without an international phone plan, I had limited communication with friends and family back home and, in a way, it was nice as I desperately needed to disconnect—at least for a long weekend. Since I was not there on holiday and I hadn’t seen much of my family for seventeen years, most of my time was spent catching up. It felt like I was meeting some of my relatives for the first time. Cousins would show up at my grandmother’s house and invite me to take a stroll around town to talk about how things don’t really change much in a small town.
Traveling to Mexico alone and practically being thrown into an environment I was unaccustomed to ended up being a breath of fresh air. It helped me gain perspective on life without its many complications and invigorated my love of my ethnic culture.
Being from Los Angeles means I come from a place where life travels in the fast lane and people are colder to one another. We choose to not say hello to strangers on the street. We choose not to greet people with a hug and a kiss on the cheek. We choose to not have a meal with family at the dinner table. Often times it feels like, as a society, we’ve made so much progress in areas that are the least important, while, at the same time, taking quite a few steps back in the areas that matter most, like connecting with one another on the most basic, human levels.
Let’s make that right again.