Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Tamales in Ysleta

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.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Latinos and Jews on Hanukah

Laura is traveling for work, and tonight Aaron, Isaac, and I lit the candles for the sixth night of Hanukah, the Jewish festival of light. We took turns lighting different candles, sang the prayers. I knew the first part, but hummed the rest. The kids were my guide. In a few more days, we will be in El Paso. If we go to a Christmas posada in Ysleta or midnight mass at Mount Carmel, Laura and the kids will also join me.

How did we become this interfaith, multicultural family? It all began at Harvard, in Economics 10, when I saw this composed, attractive sophomore sitting a few rows in front of me. We chatted a few times that year. She thought I was Greek; I thought she was English. We were both way off. I was a Chicano from El Paso, Texas, and she was a Jew from Chicago and Concord, Massachusetts.

I really became friends with Laura at a Mexico seminar the next year. Laura was majoring in Government, fluent in Spanish, and focusing on Latin America. We jogged together for months along the Charles River, before we began dating. If you want to get a sense of our first kiss, read my short story, “Remembering Possibilities,” in The Last Tortilla and Other Stories. Laura is always embarrassed when I mention this, but it is a moment I wanted to immortalize in my work. That’s one of the hazards of living with a writer: parts of your life may end up in the lives of literary characters.

I can’t tell you it was easy to become one. My parents adored Laura, primarily because she spoke Spanish, but also because she was easygoing, “suavecita” and “muy gente,” as my parents would say, while I was sometimes stubborn and mean, “el terco que no se aguanta.” Laura fit better in semi-rural, small-town Ysleta than I did. Laura’s parents, however, did not like me because I was not a Jew. Sure, this got better over time, after years of their understanding that I loved their daughter and wasn’t going away. I also grew to appreciate their focus on family and the intellectual debates at the kitchen table. Today, our harmony, mutual respect, and yes, even love are achievements, but they were hard-won.

A few years ago, an engineer with the same last name wrote to me, and sent me a research paper on our surname, which is unusual in Mexico. He had traveled to obscure archives in Mexico, traced the Troncoso name to the same town of my father’s family, and even traveled to Spain to study the archives of the Catholic Church. His findings? Our surname originates from ‘Trancoso,’ and has Sephardic origins in Toledo, where ‘los judios de Trancoso’ were either cypto-Jews hiding their heritage because of the Spanish Inquisition, or Jews kicked out of Spain to the New World in 1492. I have a book, by Pere Bonnín, Sangre Judía: Españoles de Ascendencia Hebrea y Antisemitismo Cristiano, a bestseller in Spain already in its fourth edition. This book is a compilation of research on Spanish Jewish ancestry. My last name is in this book.

As Laura quipped, once I told her, “Now I now understand the attraction.”

So I may have Sephardic ancestors, but given my mother’s fervent, unyielding Catholicism, I probably have Tomás de Torquemada’s ancestors too. Perhaps we became one big, messy familia long ago. But I believe Laura is my family, and her family is my family, not because of what happened five hundred years ago, but because I love Laura. I know the quality of the person. That’s why I light the Hanukah candles even though Laura is not at home. It is what our family would do. It is what I do.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Support Free Public Libraries

I am sitting inside a cathedral to reading and writing, the Rose Main Reading Room of the New York Public Library. It is an astonishingly beautiful place to work as a writer. I could not have found anything better at Harvard or Yale, my alma maters. The difference, of course, is that the NYPL’s reading room is free to the public.
You can walk right in off the street, at 42nd and Fifth Avenue, turn on your laptop, and enjoy peace and quiet while taking advantage of the free Wi-Fi. This reading room and the New York Public Library’s elaborate system of branch libraries are the kind of things that make New York City a great place to live.

The NYPL's main reading room is an inherently democratic place to work. Students from immigrant families study for GMATs or LSATs at long oak tables, expertly refurbished some years ago. Oldsters on their laptops work quietly under brass laps, this morning’s cold rain in Manhattan only a distant memory. Men and women in suits type frantically, glancing at journals or books. Tourists stroll in, mouths agape at the painted clouds on the ornate ceiling.

I wrote my second book in this reading room, and back then no guards checked your laptops or packages when you walked in. Now they do. They check on the way in and on the way out, perhaps a consequence of 9/11. I remember how quiet the reading room was back then, and it is still a serious place to work. No loud disturbances are allowed, and guards make sure you follow the rules.

The outside of the NYPL’s Research Library, as this magnificent Beaux-arts building is known, is also sheathed in white this morning, and perhaps the marble lions and exterior are undergoing yet another renovation. It must be difficult to keep something so precious, yet so old, up-to-date and in fine condition.

In the 1930s, the famed Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia named the lions Patience and Fortitude, for what he felt New Yorkers needed to survive the economic depression. Today, as the reading room is again packed with people, I am certain some in this grand room are struggling to find work and survive in our current economic downturn. But haven’t free public libraries always been places to fortify yourself when the world turned for the worse? Hasn’t the free public library always been a refuge?

For years, I have always contributed a modest $100 to the New York Public Library, because I like libraries, I love books, and any place that gives you the space and time to ponder quietly and deeply should be supported. But today, when I return home, I will add to my donation to the NYPL. It’s an invaluable resource for everybody, and I hope many of you will be inspired to support your own local public library.

Imagine a city where you have no place to go to read, write, or think. Imagine a city without an institution promoting the free exchange of ideas, the dissemination of a plurality of ideas, through books, the Internet, newspapers, and journals. Imagine what a bleak place that would be, not just for you, but for your parents and grandparents, for your children. Sometimes we take for granted what we have, and the unique institutions that promote the essence of our democracy. Today I will do my part to help my library. Let’s do it together.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Guadalajara: Feria Internacional del Libro

It has been an astonishing trip to Guadalajara, Mexico to be part of the gigantic book fair, one of the largest (I am told) for the Spanish-speaking world. I have to thank Director Franz Josef Kunz of the Goethe-Institut of Guadalajara for inviting me to be part of the panel on “Literatura y Migración.”

I knew it was a good start when I was wending my way into the American Airlines plane in Dallas to Guadalajara, and seated in first class (!) I find none other than Dagoberto Gilb, a good friend and a great writer. Of course, once the flight left rainy Dallas, I squeezed my way to first class to chat with Dago. I gave him a hard time for the white wine and warm nuts the ‘elite’ of first class enjoyed, while the plebes of coach went hungry. But it was great to see Dago up and about.

The next day I was waiting to have lunch at the Hilton across the street from the book fair, with Mr. Kunz, Carlos López de Alba, and Yuri Herrera, both on our panel, and who did I spot with her Blogger file open, and typing away, just as I’m doing now? Catherine Mayo. Seeing Catherine in Guadalajara was just literary nirvana. She is one of those writers you learn from and whose standards are nothing but excellent. Catherine is here to discuss her book, The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, recently selected by Library Journal as one of the top thirty books for 2009.

The highlight of Guadalajara for me has been “Literatura y Migracion.” Carlos, editor of the literary magazine Reverso, moderated the panel, and it included Yuri who wrote the novel Trabajos del Reino, María Cecilia Barbetta, an Argentine who writes in German, and Léda Forgó, who was born in Hungary but also writes in German.

What the free-wheeling discussion focused on was this literature of writers who are writing in languages not necessarily their mother tongues. But the discussion quickly turned philosophical (I brought up Heidegger and the influence of German philosophers on my own writing), or how adopting a new language forced ‘immigrant writers’ to choose words purposely, to take on the roles of outsiders in their adopted cultures, to find their place in words rather than in a ‘home country.’ For us, I believe, language has become our country.

It a funny and often disquieting existence to be neither here nor there, to have your existence, particularly your literary existence, in play, a question rather than a settled home. It certainly forces you to think about what you want to say, to take a step away to consider what and how you write, because that is how you start when you don’t quiet belong as an immigrant. Sometimes this perspective turns political, sometimes reflexive, and at other times it is simply an advantage to write about Hungary or Argentina or the Mexican-American community in a language that already is a step removed from that home. In some, this perspective is a way to work through self-alienation, or even to become a bridge between two worlds.

I came away from this panel with only deep admiration for Carlos, María Cecilia, Yuri, and Léda. Writers from across the globe struggling with similar questions I struggle with everyday. Writers who are intelligent and should be read enthusiastically. Writers who embody why seeking international alliances, when your literary endeavor is unique, will allow you to understand exactly how a community can be formed from the most disparate of individuals.