Laura and I drove through Ysleta in search of masa natural for champurrado. La Tapatia was packed, they were out of masa, but I did escape with two packets of Licon’s asaderos. I didn’t want to brave Wal-Mart (a quagmire the day before Christmas), but we still needed a few ingredients for Laura's guacamole. Yesterday she, Aaron, Isaac, and their cousins, Caleb and Joshua, baked and decorated dozens of gingerbread cookies. Today we are cooking for the-night-before-Christmas meal, but really it is a day to be with la familia.
My Muslim sister is here with two of her daughters; my Jewish wife and my kids are in the kitchen, munching on tostadas and chopping vegetables for the turkey’s stuffing and trimmings. My brothers, Oscar and Rudy, who live in El Paso, cut and shaped tree branches and created a nativity scene for my parents in the living room. Everybody is exhausted from shopping, and later we have to wrap our Secret-Santa gifts to place under el niño Jesus. At midnight, we will rip the wrapping paper off the presents, the kids will shout and compare their booty, and everybody will sit around the living room catching up and telling more stories.
This is probably a repeat of what happens all across the country. We don’t really question the different religions anymore, we rarely have anything but humorous, if occasionally pointed exchanges (mainly I love needling everybody while they roll their eyes), and we enjoy each other. The different branches of our familia are seldom together, so when we do descend on Ysleta, from New York, Washington, D.C. and beyond, we are simply happy to see each other.
This morning, in the breaking news section of the online El Paso Times, I read a report about a traffic jam in front of Lupita’s Tamales in Canutillo. The Wal-Mart shelves for dried tamale leaves and molasses have been ransacked. All the masa, natural and preparada, at tortillerias and tamale shops is gone. A few moments ago, I swiped half a tamale from an abandoned plate next to me: “Dad! That was mine! How could you?”
I understand the shocked tone, as if I have committed a sacrilege. But I gulp down the tamale quickly, and delightfully. La Tapatia’s tamales are heaven on earth. Zeke’s chorizo, I could write an entire column about it. The unique smoky taste, the fresh pork meat. Zeke’s tostadas are nothing like the facsimiles they peddle in the Northeast to the unknowing multitudes. Fresh Licon’s asaderos, the mere thought of them, make my mouth water. Oh, how joyous to be back home, and hungry!
I know it’s not all about the food. But family togetherness, at the preparation of a feast, is an ancient ritual. It is a messy, tumultuous, chaotic affair, which probably few outsiders would endure. I am glad we do it. I look forward to it all year. We have grown over time to accept each other, and to accept each other’s choices, even though we probably would have not made the same ones.
This year no severe conflicts punctuate the air. No old recriminations. I don’t know why. A few years ago, during a Christmas vacation, I had a fight with my father that took years to overcome. But this year is blessed, with our family together, laughter in faraway corners, disparate cousins working and playing together as one, and everybody remembering why it was such a good idea to return to Ysleta for Christmas.