Beans are very much a tradition of Mexican and Mexican American culture. Once upon a time they were considered, “la comida del pobre”. They are a humble dish to serve, economical and available on the spot. “¿Quieres un taco de frijoles? is what my ama offered after school or practice. A bean taco, which was really a bean burrito because the beans were wrapped in one of her yummy flour tortillas. That was always available in my amas kitchen.When visita dropped in, a full meal was whipped up and offered, but when we got home, un taco would quiet our hunger down, until la cena. Beans were a staple in my amas kitchen.
Every week my ama boiled a large pot of pinto beans. I knew no other bean, frijoles de la olla, straight out of the pot, whole beans with bean broth, or frijoles fritos; refried beans, fried and mashed fresh each day. Con mucha vergüenza I confess that I got tired of eating them. By the time I left for college, I did not appreciate my amas beans anymore.
While I was far away from home, I missed everyone and everything from home. I was eating but did not care for my own cooking and the food in the cafeteria was way too bland. I missed my ama and her cooking. Ahora si, I missed the comfort of her frijolitos. there were days when one of her tacos de frijoles with a pickled jalapeño would have hit the spot. I couldn’t wait to get back home for summer break and rest my brain from textbooks and enjoy her perfectly refried beans in one of her homemade flour tortillas. Gracias a Dios I found a renewed appreciation for frijoles!
I found it hard to believe that beans were that easy to make. How could something so simple be so tasty? Especially, given that Mexican food is so flavorful and spicy. Otra confesíon, as a young wife, I tried “improving” my amas beans, because I imagined that beans would be so much more yummy with a chunk of onion and garlic in them as they cooked. I was wrong about that, and I picked up my amas method, just plain ole water, salt and lard or oil. However, like my ama I eventually settled into my own kitchen and “owned” my apron, that’s when I substituted the salt with bouillon instead. They were just as delicious as my amas beans, imaginate!
In my opinion, flavorful, spice infused Mexican food served with simple but tasty refried beans is the best.
Three steps to making Frijoles de la olla:
Primero, Clean them, make sure no small rocks or particles are in them. Segundo, Rinse them and put them in a pot, cover with plenty of fresh water, bring them to a boil, lower the flame to medium low and simmer them with the lid slightly slanted to allow steam out. After a while, add salt, ( or bouillon) . I usually wait until they are brown. Keep on simmering until they are soft. Taste them, they might need more salt, add more as needed. Listo! My ama liked to serve up a piping hot bowl of beans with diced onion, cilantro and jalapeno. Por su puesto that it must be accompanied with corn tortillas, acuerdense, salsa was always available on my amas table. Pero, mostly we enjoyed the beans refried.
Frijoles Fritos are just as easy to make:
In a skillet pan my ama melted lard or oil. When it got hot and ready, she transferred the beans from la olla with a slotted cooking spoon to drain the bean broth as much as possible, although some did transfer. Con cuidado! They always spit and splattered loudly as they hit the hot grease, but in true latina fashion she knew how to avoid any burns. With one hand holding her slotted spatula filled with beans, she leaned back as they touched the melted grease. Luego, she allowed the beans to simmer a while before mashing them. As they continued to simmer the broth evaporated. They were perfectly ready in minutes.
Through the years I have mastered her easy 1, 2, 3 method, taking little notice of the spitting beans because, like my ama, I lean back as I transfer them into the hot oil. “Frijoles aguaditos” is how I like to serve them, with plenty of the bean broth, thick but runny, Honestly, the translation “watery beans” kills the muy delicioso vibe. Pero creeme, even though they are simple, they are very tasty. I’ll serve them with a side of Mexican rice to accompany the main dish. Or I use them on top of nachos or as the first layer on tostadas. If I serve them in a burrito, it will include meat also.
Beans remain a part of the Mexican meal, but they are no longer just “a poor man food” They are a popular pretty much everywhere. I’m glad I learned to make and appreciate my amas beans once again. I do not serve them everyday, but often enough. Thankfully, my gringo husband appreciates them. Mi hijo Thomas always gives me the “good cook” thumbs up that I’ve learned to count on. Enjoy a bowl of beans or a taco de frijoles, it’ll do you some good.
Learning a second language is such a valuable skill y el español is a beautiful language. When I was a young mom, I knew I had to teach my children Spanish, it was important to me. But it was hard, because I think in English and I didn’t get much opportunity for daily Spanglish with my English speaking husband. By the time my first born was school age I had decided that the only way to teach him Spanish was to immerse him in the language, So I sent him to a Spanish immersion public school. By the end of his kinder year he was understanding Spanish and speaking it, although not fluently. I remember going to visit my apa and my little guerito was understanding his tata, I loved it! Mission accomplished…sort of, I mean he can go into Mexico and get by. Pues, language immersion was quite a different and difficult experience for my oldest brother Angel.
Our apa took an opportunity given to him to immigrate his family and the Zepedas were immersed into the land of opportunity, los Estados Unidos. Coming from the border city of Mexicali, the language was familiar but now they would have to learn it. The culture in California was a mixture of “American” ways, the great American melting pot, un poquito de todo. The people, white, black and of various shades of brown weren’t always very accepting. Ya te imaginas, they were difficult transitions indeed!
My ama faced her culture shocks alone while the kids were at school all day, themselves facing their education in an unknown language, pero, it was what had to be done. Angel was thirteen, and that alone could be explosive. Picture those middle school challenges of your day but add a language barrier and culture shock. He faced them as well as a 13 year old could. He had always “handled his affairs” and helped Ama as much as possible, he didn’t want to burden our parents with his troubles. He faced and managed his new “language and cultural” immersion at school with hard work and pride.
Angel was resourceful and pulled from the wealth of knowledge learned at home, at his previous school and in the streets of his colonia in Mexicali.
His classroom beginnings were rough. Despite his age, he was placed in the younger kids classroom, chiquillos! When he was sharing this story I could hear the mortification in his tone as he said, “They put me in the younger class just because I didn’t know english yet.” He hadn’t been assessed, it had been the quick solution to new arrival immigrant kids from across the border. During math class one day, a very simple math test demonstrated his acquired knowledge but instead of using this to place Angel in a more appropriate classroom, the teacher assumed he had cheated. He separated him from the other students and made him retest. Angel, in his colorful descriptive language said, “It was a blankity blank, easy 6th grade test!” What the teacher considered hard math didn’t phase Angel as long as they weren’t word problems, those he couldn’t read yet. Angel dealt with this hurdle and proved himself beyond proficient in his math skills, but the bigger hurdle was the teacher’s mindsets. Angel’s perseverance didn’t put him in good graces with the teacher. By the ripe old age of 13, he had seen and experienced that sometimes teachers fall prey to favoritism which can skew a person’s vision.
Outside of the classroom the bullies came after him, the new kid. Thankfully, facing the ‘gangas’ in the streets had toughened his hide and prepared him for the new school. On the school bus he had to stand his ground, he didn’t understand the possible insults hurled at him, but he definitely understood the aggressive attempts to intimidate him and he wasn’t going to allow it. One day, just as he got off the bus, he was confronted simply because he wasn’t giving up his seat. It had come time to fight. He defended himself against the boys that came after him to the point that he cut one of them and drew blood. It was a fight for survival and Angel had prevailed only to face the principal who immediately assumed that he was the instigator. I wonder if he knew that it was a few boys against one? In those days, “corporate punishment” was allowed and the principal was ready to administer it, but Angel wasn’t going to allow this unfair treatment. My apa was summoned. He was called out from work, something he couldn’t afford, pero, his son was more important. He made it very clear to the principal that if corporal punishment was needed, he would take care of it. Our father believed that there are times when correction is needed as children are being trained up, but he also felt a need to advocate for his son and protect him.
Eventually he did learn the language. He loved reading comic strips. In Mexicali he had sold the popular Mexican magazines and here in America he discovered Archie and the gang. All their school age dramas proved educational for him. He turned the pages, at first just enjoying the images, then with time he was reading the story line.
Along his “school days” journey he had picked up some things that he tucked into a pocket of his heart:
He knew he could count on our Apa for provision and protection y su amor.
He also reinforced his conviction that bullies must be dealt with, not avoided.
Finally, he discovered that in life you will meet all kinds of people, in all shades and sizes. Some good and some bad. There will be those that are foolishly fearful and ignorant, unwilling to recognize the potential of different people. He would not be one of those people. As an adult his truck driving experiences gave him an appreciation for diversity of people and cultures.
Ya se que, these kinds of stories aren’t new, in Southern California, they’re even common experiences. Listening to my brother’s stories made me proud of him and la familia Zepeda. Hijole! I want more and more of our history in coming to America, and more of our stories of our contribution in civil rights. Living our part of the American dream has come with some cost. I’m grateful for the lessons I’ve learned from my big brother Angel and that he paved the way for our siblings and for me.
Miriam Webster defines volcano with these words “a vent in the crust of the earth or another planet or a moon from which usually molten or hot rock and steam issue” and “something of explosively violent potential” Doesn’t that sound like the Middle School experience? Verdad que si? Just ask any 6th, 7th or 8th grader, they’ll tell you how hard it is, IF you can get them out of their sullen state. My middle school initiation was perhaps the worst ever!A 6th grader is supposed to be the top dog in elementary school. You know, the ones everyone looks up to. I was ready for my time to shine in that place.
Leaders of the Middle School
Back in the ancient days of the 70s, in my little town of Calipatria, the classroom announcements for the new school year was a huge deal. It was both an exciting and nerve racking time, I mean our happiness rested on who was gonna be our teacher and if my current best friend would sit in the desk next to us.
The hot scorching desert sun could not stop us from that mile-long walk across the tracks. We rushed past the gas station, the grocery store, the laundromat, the Bank of America, the Circle K, park and library. Our sun scorched skin simply soaked in more sun. We had to know what our future held. This was an exciting time for me and my sister Patty, she was gonna be in 8th grade, imaginate! Even though I would barely see her around I was so proud of her, 8th grade, wow! Y pues, I was sorta following in her steps, 6th grade, a big kid in the elementary level, I needed this promotion.
Z is for Last in Line
Zepedas were ALWAYS at the bottom of the list. Last in line, y porque? Totally not fair! But it was so. My eyes automatically went to the bottom of the lists for our names. Pattys homeroom teacher was Mr. Carter. Hijole! That’s the one she didn’t want, she said he was mean. I wondered what a homeroom was?
Imaginate my dismay when I did not see my name in either 6th grade classes. Maybe I flunked? Que verguenza to do 5th grade again? No que muy Honor Roll student, what would my friends say about me? And my apa, oh no…
Then, I saw a whole new class was posted, my name, Rosalba Zepeda was found at the bottom of that list. A hybrid class with both 6 and 7th graders. Que? A mixed class? Porque? Mrs. Lara was gonna be my new teacher. She was kinda different because she had married Mr. Lara and he was Mexican-American. She was white! I had never seen that! I didn’t even know that was allowed. Mrs. Lara was new to our school and a new wife and new to a mixed classroom. Was the school experimenting with us? Was there no place for people with Z names or new teachers who dared step out of the box?
The walk home was long and hot, I was burning up. My friends didn’t know what to think, they all had their names on the 6th grade roster. Patty was too angry about her homeroom teacher to feel bad for me because I was gonna be in that weird hybrid class.
My Middle School Hybrid Class
When September rolled around, I was tense. My classroom was out in a bungalow separate from the middle schoolers and also separate from the elementary kids. I felt like we were deserted, I wonder if Mrs. Lara felt the same? Was my class a 6th grade class or a 7th grade class? I had decided I was going to take my ‘big kid’ roll anyway, those 7th graders weren’t going to boss me around. I entered the class room looking confident, but feeling nervous. I picked my desk in front of the class. I didn’t want to test the 7th grade cool kids, besides I still had an honor roll reputation to uphold. It was going to be a long year. Here’s are the things that are bookmarked in my memory for that mixed year:
I sat on my desktop and broke it!! Asi es, right in the front row for all to see, just before Mrs. Lara had called the class to quiet down, I was confidently sitting on my desktop table when all of a sudden, crack! I went down a notch. I managed to jump off as everyone laughed but the humiliation almost killed me. Mrs. Lara didn’t laugh.
During recess, I made a stand to keep my victory in the game of Caracol and paid dearly for it. The 7th grader leader decided I wasn’t worth her acquaintance so everyone else followed her lead. I was marked as the target the entire hybrid 6th grade year. When girls decide to be mean, hijole! Cuidate!. Needless to say, it was a lonely year. Mrs. Lara saw the separation, and was on my side.
This bookmark will probably be red flagged. It happened like this. One day during PE our class got to participate in a softball game with the mighty 8th graders. That meant I was gonna be with Patty! Yes! Those rare moments in school when you get to be close to one of your big sisters and feel real safe and secure. Softball wasn’t Patty’s strength, but some of her other peers, like the catcher was a superstar. Patty was feeling her disdain every time she went to the plate. Her class was losing. She was sick and tired of the “trash talk” She walked to plate and positioned herself to bat. The catcher cried out “She’s no batter” She gripped that bat, ready to kill that ball. Strike! And she tensed, poised. “Strike Two!” the catcher taunted as she swung and missed. Her lips thinned and began to get dark purple. That was always a sign to me that I had gone past the point of no return and she was gonna kick my butt! To top it off my enemies laughed and taunted her and me. I held my breath. The catcher pricked her one last time “she’s no batter, strike three!” Patty didn’t even look at the ball being pitched, she swung and struck out. Without missing a beat, she threw her bat down. She turned around and confronted the catcher, throwing her to the ground making her face her taunting words, the volcano had exploded, the pressure of 8th spewed out. We all ran to the plate and surrounded the girls, the chatter and provoking challenges “Don’t let her get away with that” were smothered as the teachers put a quick end to the fight. Mr. Carter easily lifted both girls and walked them to the principal’s office. Somehow some pressure had been lifted off me. I looked at my arch enemy and dared her with my eyes to mess with me again. It would be a giant I would eventually have to face in middle school, pero, for the moment, I felt invincible, that was my big sister, I dared anyone to mess with her.
Those experiences shape us as adults. It’s not “just” puberty. We experience that humiliation that helps keep our heads from getting too big later in life. We learn how to empathize and notice when someone isn’t being treated fairly or when someone feels left out because we’ve been there before. And when we look that bully in the eye and make a stand, we learn that we can over come anything.
Middle School is not an easy time, I’m sure everyone has their stories of fear and rejection. If you’ve got a child in middle school, remember those days and use them to help your kid make it and maybe even thrive.
Today I’m all about the melting pot, total give away with a name like Rosalba Greene right? But when I was growing up, in the California desert valley I didn’t know anything about it. In my small community, we had very little diversity.
I come from the Imperial Valley, way down at the bottom of California, right at the edge of Mexico. If you cross the line you’re in Baja. Lots of Mexicans, and Mexican-Americans to pick from in El Valle Imperial. Small towns scattered throughout the region made social interactions comfortable.
It’s what I was used to, surrounded by mi gente mostly, speaking our rapid sounding Spanish dialect. Of course with the small elite group of whites; los Patrones who controlled the economy mostly through agriculture; we mostly spoke Spanglish, the official unofficial language.
California State Route 111 or as we called it, “El Ciento Once“, was the main route that led to the important cities. and it went right through The City of Calipatria, where the tallest flagpole in America stands. It has a reputation of being bien chiquita, the warning was don’t blink or you’ll miss it! A “city” with a small population of almost 8,000.
The sembradores, piscadores, regadores and patrones drove the economy with agriculture and farming. How such a dry desert place produces such wealth in vegetable crops is incredible, although it didn’t really matter much to me then, I now realize it was our bread and butter. My Apa supported our family working as a regador, one English translation is irrigation technician. I guess it can be quite technical, once my dad was explaining how it was that he irrigated a field, or maybe it was how not to irrigate a field? Too little water will dry a crop, too much will drown the crop. Just the right measurement is needed, but when he used technical measurements he lost me.
Social and Economic divides
We sectioned off the city, not literally but within and gravitated to our comfort culture. It was like this, the East side across the tracks, where we lived. The West Side, where the town square rested, a good mile away from the tracks. Then there was the rich side where the whites lived. People of the same ethnic group with similar experiences, grouping together so naturally. This description is from almost 40 years ago, quizas ya cambio, maybe Valley folks are all mingled and mixed now.
Social life consisted of after school sports and the Friday night high school football game. Our special occasions included the perpetual quinceañeras on Saturday nights. I can only imagine what the rich white kids experienced. Horses, 4H club and other expensive hobbies. I really don’t know the kind of socializing that took place over there, my husband the Cold Blooded Englishman tells me he played tennis and went sailing (bien muy muy).
We all, Mexicans, Americans and Mexican-Americans crossed cultures and economic status on the 4th of July. We agreed that our fireworks displays were the best. Homecoming games were times of rallying together and getting that CIF championship! You know what’s crazy? All of a sudden, We were all cozy around each other, we all were one team, the Calipatria Hornets! I can hear the cheerleaders chanting “We are the Hornets, mighty mighty Hornets!” Then we all drifted back to our comfort cultures.
It’s been nice remembering my days in Calipatria. Days when I shined as a volleyball player and walked the high school grounds with such confidence. I considered myself (though perhaps nobody else did) a good point guard in basketball, of course that was on the J.V. team as a junior! (the oldest player on the team). The sports banquets were always a bit awkward, but I loved that spotlight, especially when I won a trophy. Then, as my Senior year came to an end, and I was having to consider my future, I definitely never imagined that I would be anywhere else in the world.
I came to San Diego because I was accepted into UCSD, Third College. Pero como fue possible?! (My Puerto Rican friends would say, “Que fue?”) I was just as shocked! Submitting an application had been a last minute idea suggested by my volley coach; Miss George. I didn’t expect my immediate future to change so quickly, so completely through one application. I figured I would go to IVC– our community college and ease into adult life. When the letter arrived in the mail announcing this opportunity, it was time to tell my parents about it.
Before I could settle down and enjoy my last summer as a kid, I found myself in San Diego, on campus with masses of students from all over the world! Summer Bridge was the program that helps students transition from kid school to hardball school, by the end of 4 weeks I should have crossed the bridge with experience and confidence.
There I was, with my non-English speaking ama and my apa, refusing to speak his heavily accented English. We were completely disoriented on orientation day. That whole afternoon was a blur. I can now imagine what my poor mother must have felt as she said goodbye, leaving me all alone to face adulthood, with all those different people.
One of the ice breakers we Mexican Americans use is Spanglish. Somehow it eases things up when talking to a new acquaintance to bust out your Spanglish, that is, if they speak Spanish. You can imagine what a relief it was for me to see other fellow Mexicans walking about the campus during orientation. As soon as I got close enough to one girl, I said “Estoy bien lost! Man! Ni se lo que estoy haciendo?!” She turned to look at me and said, “What?” She had no idea what I had said. I was on my own. Later, I found out that this girl was Mexican-American! Where did she leave her Spanglish?
I was shell shocked that first year of college. I shared an apartment with 3 other girls, and wow! Talk about diversity. My bedroom would become my sanctuary when I wasn’t in classes. Allison, my roommate was this super confident black American girl, who was enjoying her independence. I don’t think I ever learned much about her except that she was always spending the night with her boyfriend, was that even legal? The other two girls were my housemates. Hilary, was from Northern California. A rich white girl, always chillin’ on a high with her boyfriend. It got to the point that literally they would do days just hitting that bong, barely going to classes, yet somehow passing exams with A’s! I was awkward with them, now it wasn’t only the white and brown difference, it was their relaxation methods that weirded me out. Don’t get me wrong, Hilary was nice, but what she offered, I did not want.
Julia, my other housemate was also from Northern California. She was a hippie type, very natural, didn’t like perfumes, or make up or deodorant. She was the most approachable even spoke Spanish, but because I wasn’t in that comfort cultural zone I avoided her too. Little did I know that one day I would be related to someone a lot like her; my brother in-law Jeremy.
Life was hard and school was just too much to cope with to even realize that I had no social life. In lil’ ole Calipat high, I was accepted. Nobody was unaccepting me, if anything, all the other Freshmen were just like me, adjusting. In high school I was cool, I was fun and crazy, but college life and the big city was way out of my league. I did manage to acquire a friend, a legit Mexican-American. Her Spanish was better than mine and she was studious. Two awkward Mexicans in a multicultural sea of students. Margarita was smart and focused on why she was there, while I was wondering why I was there in the first place! Fatigue, depression and loneliness washed over me.
I survived that first year, but just barely. My grades were mediocre, It wasn’t until the end of the school year that I realized that all the free time I had between classes and labs was meant for studying, not The Guiding Light soap opera!.
Staying in San Diego
I was glad when it was over, I was done with the whole experience, midterms and finals for sure! My brain was was exhausted. I was ready for my break. I needed to catch up with my sis Patty, and my valley friends before facing the reality of adulting. But, once again, an application determined my future. I had applied and was hired for a job at the Science and Engineering Library on campus, starting immediately. In this setting I would really face the diversity of cultures and generations. (I didn’t even know that students could be old!) I had to face it, accept and maybe embrace it. We would see, but first I would catch a quick weekend at home
One short summer weekend, that turned my life upside down and inside out again! My mother fretted and she looked at my sister Patty. Otra vez! She was getting blamed. My other siblings wondered what the heck I was doing. I was a different girl, hold on, same lil Mexican-American chick, but I re-entered San Diego a whole new person from the inside. Some would say “I got religion” Maybe I did. This is what I know, I discovered true friendship.
Wow! A friend who transcended culture, age, gender, mindsets, habits. No pretending, no holding back, he loved me, just the way I was! Immediately I trusted him. No fear of backstabbing, or rejection. No worries that he’d be embarrassed of me, or that I was bothering him. He actually sought to be my friend, he wasn’t too busy. He was that friend that totally influenced every part of me and my life. Now with this new influencer in my life I was challenged to look outside my comfortable culture and accept and offer friendship outside of it. While I was open to it, it was a bit awkward. I was glad that in fact He encouraged me to mix and mingle my Mexican-American culture with his Jesus culture, and beyond! He spoke Spanglish.
I can’t wait to tell about the incredible diversity I’ve enjoyed in my relationships, starting with my marriage. Friends that I would have never chosen or been afraid to approach were arranged into my life beautifully.