LAS VEGAS — My suegro has been staying with us for the past month, helping with some remodeling and repairs. After months of working at home, my wife just started going back to the office in order to keep a closer eye on what is and isn’t going on in the warehouse, and so it’s been just me and the old man alone most of the day—my stepdaughter gets up around 10 and hardly leaves her room—working on the house.
I’m his lowly apprentice, doing whatever he tells me to do, exactly when and how he tells me to do it. He’s worked construction and remodeling for some 30 years; meanwhile I don’t know shit about remodeling, hammers, or any of that, but I’m slowly learning.
— Hector Luis Alamo (@HectorLuisAlamo) September 22, 2020
Working closely with him these past few weeks, I can see where my wife gets her fussiness. The old man measures four or five times and makes his cuts with one of the electric saws. And if the piece doesn’t fit perfectly, then he does it all over again. We began by putting in new floors, and you should’ve seen how much time we spent on some of the cuts around the trickier corners. With all the lines and angles he drew, you would’ve thought he was building a rocket. He takes a long shower twice a day, in the morning and before bed, while blasting Marco Antonio Solis on the iPhone we got him—now I know where my wife and the girl get that, too. He’s in the kitchen by eight every morning, all cologned and shaved, to fix himself a bagel with cream cheese and an Herbalife shake, and chat with his lady back in Juárez via AirPods. (We’ve shown him a lot of New School to add to his Old School. The other day he swung by Famous Footwear and copped a pair of Chuck Taylors. The old man now has cooler kicks than I do.)
Though he says he’s not much of a cook, he’s been putting his foot in dinner most nights. I’ve noticed that he cooks the way he works, all in the hands and eyes and ears, meticulous. I try to stay in charge of lunch, though, because if I let him, he’ll fix us up a three-course meal every day at noon, and I’m not big on lunch. (As much as I’ve tried explaining it to him, he’ll never understand the concept of intermittent fasting.) Usually I’ll make my go-to huevo picado (chucking some of the yolks) with diced green pepper, tomato, onion—the colors of the Mexican flag—and a side of refried beans and tortillas. Or I’ll nuke whatever leftovers are in the fridge, throw an over-easy egg on it with some shredded cheese, add a sliced avocado, and call it brunch.
— Hector Luis Alamo (@HectorLuisAlamo) October 7, 2020
Or I’ll make us huevos con chorizo on an everything bagel—old school, new school.
— Hector Luis Alamo (@HectorLuisAlamo) October 1, 2020
The other day I reheated the carne molida con papas he’d made the night before, and served it with warm tortillas, sliced avocado, and a spicy red salsa he made for the week, his mother’s recipe. When he saw me rolling up my tortilla to hold in my left hand and take bites out of as I forked the carne molida into my mouth with my right, he cupped a tortilla in his hand and said, “We make tacos with this.”
By “we” he meant Mexicans. My wife is pura mexicana, de Juárez, while I’m half-Honduran, half-Puerto Rican. Puerto Ricans don’t eat tortillas, traditionally, whereas Hondurans do but not to make tacos. I remember sitting at my grandma’s kitchen table in Logan Square as a boy, and using one of the tortillas—which my grandma still cooks directly on the burner, so they char a bit—and my grandma going, “No, we don’t eat the tortillas like that.” She showed me how to roll a tortilla in one palm using the other, and taking bites out of it after every spoonful of food or so, the way I’ve seen Greeks and Turks eat pita, or how white people use a dinner roll. Hondurans use the last bit of tortilla to sop up any leftover meat juices, egg yolk, or beans, which my grandma prepares especially running, liquefying them in a blender with plenty of sautéed onions and some oil, probably for the express purpose of soaking them up with a tortilla afterward.
Of course, being a Latino, or maybe just an American, I do eat tacos—a lot of them, all the time. I’m sure I eat more of them now since I married a Mexican, but I ate plenty of them before her, too. Refusing to eat tacos is un-American. Same goes for nachos, orange chicken, shrimp fried rice, fettuccine alfredo… a lot of things. If you don’t like tacos, or brats, or Korean barbecue, then you should just head back to wherever you came from. America isn’t for you.
Even as my grandma sat there and had the nerve to tell me what I should and shouldn’t do with my tortillas, I got the strong urge to tell her: Maybe they don’t use tortillas to make tacos where you come from, but this here’s America. And in America, we eat tacos three and four at a time.
I’m proud to be Honduran—if a person can be proud of such an accident of birth—but the idea that my Catrachohood hangs on a detail as minor as how I eat a tortilla is completely ridiculous. If that’s what it means to be Honduran, then being Honduran must not mean much, at least to Hondurans like my grandma.
My grandma—bless her old, reactionary heart—has a lot of hang-ups, in fact, when it comes to the outside influences. She hates it whenever her grandkids use words like órale or güey, or phrases like No mames or por Detroit. “We don’t talk like that,” she says, with the air of an aristocrat, as if she were some hacendado‘s daughter, which she definitely is not. Much of my Honduran side comes from a long line of poor, farming mountainfolk—gente del monte. I’ve been to our village a couple times. I’ve seen how they live and can only imagine how even more bleak things must’ve been back when my mom was a girl there in the sixties, or my grandma in the forties. We Hondurans are in no position to look down our noses at how other people speak or eat a tortilla.
If I want to mix my Honduran and Puerto Rican cultures with Mexican culture, that is my right, as a Latino, as an American, as a human being—as is the right to eat whatever I want, however I want.
And so I say to my grandma and other Latino purists like her: No manches, carnales, y ¡que viva el taco!