san cristobal de las casas

San Cristobal is magic. That’s what everyone had said. The colonial city overflows with spirits, hot food, fog, and brisk evenings. I knew Mexico was haunted. But as it turns out, it can also be shockingly cold. Naturally, I hadn’t done my research. I’d brought shorts and one sweater.

The colonial city was built in the 16th centry. While its Spanish charm still rings loudly, navigation is easy; tourism has taken root. Streets are cobblestone and buildings are vibrant yellows, pinks, and blues. Soft celestes and whites cover chapel exteriors. Flossy blouses and embroidered house dresses stack to the ceilings of market stands. Antique huipiles run at tourist prices, each one a work of art. San Cristobal is a pueblo magico, officially– a preserved, recognized historic town in Mexico. The architecture is charming but simple: two-story buildings, arched windows, too many churches.

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Upon tracking down my hostel (that’s Puerta Vieja, which I can’t recommend enough), I stopped in Doña Ame Tamales. The restaurant is located on Calle Diego Mazariegos, just three blocks from the zócalo. At 12 pesos for a café americano and 14 to 16 pesos for a tamal, it’s a cheap breakfast for a traveller’s town. They even offer vegetarian and vegan options. (I told you it was touristy).

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Later in the afternoon, I took a break from Mexican food. I was thrilled to find a Salvadoran restaurant in town. It’s a mother-and-daughter run pupusa cafe. Pupusas are a traditional dish in El Salvador. To make a pupusa, you start with a ball of masa dough the size of a baseball. Then, carve out an indentation, as if you’re forming a shallow bowl or the start of a pinch pot in a middle school art class. Fill the masa dish with beans and cheese (or chicken– whatever you want), and seal up the ball again so that it’s filled like a cream puff. Flatten the ball like a thick pancake (or small tortilla) so that the filling stays inside. Fry that up on a griddle, flipping like a pancake. And then top the pupusa fresh slaw and salsas.

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Although I’d eaten pupusas with my hands in the Ignacio Ellacuria community while I was visiting El Salvador five years ago, I gathered that that wasn’t so acceptable in a city. Using a fork and knife (because you’re a proper lady), slice into the pupusa, and savor the soupy black beans inside. The tangy slaw adds a contrasting flavor to the savory, creamy pupusa. It’s crazy how one meal, like a good book, can transport you to a time and a place. Like baking quesada, a Spanish cheesecake, in a Boston apartment while working (for free) for a recipe site. Or crimping Argentine-style baked empanadas in a friend’s kitchen in Texas, recreating what had been our daily lunch for six months in Buenos Aires. I might have just spent 14 hours on a bus passing through southern Mexico, yet with one bite I’m back in tropical, mountainous El Salvador. No place seems too out of reach.

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Despite the obvious backpacker status, San Cristobal hasn’t lost its charm. It feels old. This is the city that Sandra Cisneros visited when she set out to write her second book, tapping away on a type writer at a secretary school, sitting beside women working toward an opportunity for escape from their present life. Employment.

I’d just taught The House on Mango Street to my 10th graders in Tehuacán. The book feels different every time I re-read it. And I chose this trip to break open Cisneros’ new nonfiction collection, A House of My Own. It’s funny to read about one of your favorite writers travelling to a place you are literally travelling to in that moment. She calls Chiapas “Mayan country” where the women where huipiles, the woven tunics that precede Colombus, and where the people smell of leña, that mix of smoke and wood. Cisneros wrote her book of poems, Loose Woman, in this town, in 1985. Thirty years later, her descriptions are picture-perfect. She describes the used, worn huipiles that are sold on side streets. “By pulling the garments inside out,” she writes, “I could read their history.”

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You go to San Cristobal for the stories and the adventure; the place is filled with voices. It’s the hub for daytrips to the cañón de sumidero, to the towns of chiapas del corzo and comitán de dominguez, and the breathtaking blue of the cascading water at el chiflon. But you’ll want to stay in San Cris for the way the sun beats on the golden-yellow buildings at midday and the coziness of a glass of wine and a serving of mezcal in the gauzy evening. The air is fresh, and artisans stroll the streets, arms piled with cozy blankets and tops to wrap yourself in when the daylight fades away.

Mini Mango Pasta Salad

I’ve moved (again). It’s hardly considered moving when you can fit all of your stuff into a backpack and a tote bag, call a taxi, and switch homes in a matter of minutes. I changed apartments three times in Colombia. Now onto the second space in Mexico.

Living with a host family had its ups and downs. While my family cooked the most delicious frijoles refritos, filling memelas and rich cremas, I did miss being in the kitchen, putting together my own meals. I loved speaking Spanish with my host family. But after four months, it’s a little uncomfortable to feel like a guest in your own home, to always be texting about curfews, and to find yourself locked out at 3 a.m.

I’ve moved into an apartment with four other teachers. This means fewer TV shows and more music, less agua de papaya, and more limes squeezed into cold beers.

Here’s the meal plan: Ingredients are fresh, food is cheap, and jalapeños are soaked in tequila. Oh, and as long as its mango season, we’re eating mangos. Seriously, do as you’re told. Everything you need for this pasta salad costs about 35 pesos (or two dollars) at a vegetable market down the street. We’re using canned corn (breaking the fresh rule, I KNOW, OKAY, SORRY) because it’s actually cheaper (at 8 pesos) than buying four ears worth ( at 15).

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We’re using a jalapeño because, hello, this is Mexico. And mango is it’s best friend, coming to the immediate rescue in the heat department. Red onion and roasted corn are a no-brainer summer combination, cucumber adds some crunch, and everything (everything) tastes better with lime.

We’re going to chop it all up real small – I’m talking chiquitito  so that you nearly get a piece of every veggie in each bite. And we don’t want to overwhelm the munición pasta with too-large chucks. This pasta is baby pasta. Try to be delicate with it. Sing it a lullaby as it cools.

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Mini Mango Pasta Salad

Makes one family-sized bowl (fit for five normal people or three hungry roommates)

What you’ll need:

  • 1 package munición pasta (200 g) (or any other tiny pasta will do)
  • 1 can (230 ounces) corn, drained and rinsed
  • 1 jalapeño, diced
  • 1 cucumber, diced
  • 1 red onion, diced
  • 1 mango, sliced AND diced
  • juice of 4 limes
  • 1 tbsp olive oil, plus some for sautéing
  • handful of fresh basil leaves, torn
  • salt and pepper to taste

Directions:

Ready that lil’ pasta: Let’s boil some water. You’ve done this before. You got this. Cook those munición guys for just about 5 minutes. (They’re quick and we do not want to deal with mushy pasta).

Sauté: Heat oil in a pan over medium heat. Sauté the corn with the jalapeño until everything browns just a bit.

Chop: Add the cucumber and red onion to a large bowl. When the pasta and corn/jalapeño mixture cools, add those in too. Fold in the mango last.

Mix the dressing: lime juice, oilve oil, salt, and pepper. It’s simple, a little tangy, and light. Whirl it around with a fork (because you don’t have a proper whisk), and drizzle that shit over the whole salad. Stir it all about.  Then fold in some basil leaves from your little plant pet. Cute shit? Cute shit.

 

molotes y castanas

I know, I know, I already mentioned that there’s not much over in Ajalpan. But if you’re going to drop by, at least make sure it’s a Wednesday or Sunday, the two days of the week where the central market opens. That’s about the only place you can find moletes for miles. Molotes are true mercado food. You won’t find these in a proper sit-down restaurant, but they’re not equated with the street taco either. If you’d like a taste, you have to get yourself to the crowded, sizzling Wednesday market.

Molotes are finger food. First, masa is mixed with potato to form a dough. Then the dough is wrapped around refried black beans that are seasoned with hinojo leaves, or fennel. (Sometimes they’re stuffed with beef, but this vegetarian was thrilled to find a simpler, plant-filled version.) In true market fashion, the doughy refried bundles are then soaked in bubbling oil. The hint of liquorice from the hinojo, like anise, adds a satisfying flavor that works with the vibrant salsa verde that tops it off. On second thought, maybe anything and everything pairs well with fresh salsa verde.

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A few plastic chairs offer a quick place to stuff your face if you really want to stay a while. But molotes are best enjoyed right then and there, standing by the market stall.

Throughout town on market days, you’ll see families walking down the streets, baskets flung over their shoulders or grasped in their hands. Although I already suggested the town is more known for popsicles and molotes, one of Ajalpan’s main industries is basket weaving. When I ask how long this tradition has been in place, I can’t seem to get an answer. Hace mucho, says our guide, Irma.

After we’re stuffed with molotes, we visit a basket weaver at his home, where he and his family create containers with their hands and feet. Yes, their feet. Traditionally, people in Ajalpan would create the star at the base of each basket by holding the fibers in place with their feet and spinning in a circle.

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We watch him slit a strand of bamboo-like stalk with a blade and weave it through the edge of the basket to create a decorative edge.

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He showed us the horno, a  brick oven inside his open-air house. But this is no pizza oven. The traditional horno for the castanas involves five layers: dry earth, stone, sand, crystal, and salt. These tiers allow the oven to grow warm enough to change the hue of the baskets, warming them to a deep caramel color. Many buyers, who suspect that the baskets are painted or dyed, are surprised to learn about this basket-baking business.

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Of course, I end up taking a small 10-peso basket home. If a man makes a basket in front of me, how could I not buy it? Is it my obligation as a tourist, or was I totally roped into another purchase? “I’ll use it for tortillas,” I thought. Sure, all of those handmade tortillas I’m always making day in and day out…. It’s more likely to hold my red pens and dry erase markers. Maybe I’ll stuff it full of molotes for a ready supply of fried food.

I initially mistook Ajalpan for a simple, nondescript place hiding in Tehuacan’s shadows. But event the quietest pueblos have a specific product to offer– some secret process rooted in family tradition.

coca loca

Empty 2.5 – liter coke bottles fill a refrigerator- sized cardboard box at the foot of my host family’s stairs. I’m not sure why we save them rather than send them out for the recycling. A future science project? A hanging planter in the works? I’ve never asked. But they’re there, vestiges of lunches past.

In Mexico, the tap water is too concentrated with minerals like calcium to drink. My host family stocks 20-liter bottles, and water delivery is a profession in of itself. But at lunch and dinner, water doesn’t fill our plastic cups. Party-sized bottles of refrescos stand on the table like centerpieces and candle sticks, blocking the view of the person seated across. And while the cleverly named Limon & Nada brand is often showcased, more often than not, it’s coca. Brown fizzy cola with the iconic red label.

Mexico has a coke problem, and I don’t mean cocaine. According to The Guardian, “excessive consumption of soda kills twice as many Mexicans as trade in the other kind of coke.” Type 2 diabetes is the nation’s leading cause of death. A 10% soda tax eludes effort toward a solution. But as my students will tell you, a slight up-charge doesn’t deter consumers from buying soda; they’re not about to replace coke with water just because it costs a few cents more.

#MexicanCoke #Onleyville #tortas #Saturdayafternoons #401

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In the U.S., we’re willing to pay extra for “Mexican coke.” Mexican coke means a glass bottle filled with real cane sugar rather than high fructose corn syrup. It also makes you look hip. To soda lovers, the difference in taste is enviable, and the imported curvy glass bottle warrants an up-charge. After all, a cold beverage always tastes better when served in glass. That, you can’t argue with.

On a recent trip to New York City, I ate in a trendy café where bagel breakfast sandwiches cost upwards of twelve dollars, and coffee, more than six. Mexican cokes lined the fridge beside coconut waters and cold-pressed green juices. The same crowd that supports the “locavore” movement– snap chatting their trips to the farmers’ markets– seemed to patronize this trendy bagel shop, buying Mexican coke. The logic feels fuzzy — contradictory, even. How do the global and local movements clash? Is choosing Mexican coke over the domestic product a rebellion against big-corporation corn syrup producers? Or do people simply think it tastes better?

As Anne Glusker points out over at the Smithsonian, choosing a coke bottle’s country of origin is arbitrary; Coca Cola is a global brand. If it’s carbonated, sweet, and comes in a bottle, more likely than not, it’s owned by the same corporation. It’s country of origin– the U.S., Mexico, or another home of one of more than 900 Coca Cola plants in the world — doesn’t seem to matter as long as you want to drink it.

I grew up thinking of soda as a thing of restaurants. Sprite mixed into Shirley Temples for special occasions. But as an everyday commodity? As something the grocery shopper picks up out of habit, cocoa cola quickly becomes like a carton of milk or a pack of cigarettes—a habitual purchase; an unquestionable necessity. More than just a household brand.

I may’ve only taken two marketing courses in college before succumbing to complete boredom, but I stuck around long enough to get the 101 level concepts tied to brand relationships and consumer-brand identification. I wondered, how can a community identify so strongly with a product that offers absolutely no benefit for its people? No nutritional benefits. No financial benefits. In a country without drinkable tap water, why guzzle a beverage that literally dehydrates the body? Was Coca Cola bringing employment and cash to the Mexican market? Is it benefiting families? I asked my host family these questions, and they shrugged and pulled another bottle from the fridge.

After the first few weeks of staying with my host family, getting into the routine of the TV blaring as we sat down to eat at 3 p.m., I asked the table if they were going to stop buying coke. There was talk of a Mexico-wide boycott of the product in the Trump Era. With the drama of shifting NAFTA policies and Trump’s unending insults to our southern neighbors, Mexicans (rightly so) began to talk about avoiding U.S. companies. Why should they pour money into something that is not theirs? Why not make a statement with the “power of the purse” and stop contributing to another nation’s financial gain?

The teenager at the table laughed, surprised that a pura gringa would suggest any attempt hurt the U.S. economy. But I wasn’t even thinking that big. It made sense — make a statement by putting your money elsewhere, and buying Mexican products instead.

But buying local, I came to learn, was messier than I’d thought. I’d been shopping at Bodega Aurrera, the grocery chain only a 10-minute walk from the house. I refused to shop at Walmart, which, yes, exists in Tehuacán, along with Sam’s Club, Home Depot, and Office Depot. (U.S. corporations are never out of reach.) But a month later, a local would clue me in to my misguided shopping. Bodega Aurrera, which originated as a local Mexican company, was bought by Walmart in 1997. I was a bit behind on the news.

And as it turns out, those cleverly named Limón & Nada bottles are produced and filled by Coca Cola Corporation, anyway. Even Peñafiel, a mineral water and soda factory based in Tehuacán, is owned by the Dr. Pepper Snapple Group. U.S. ownership is ubiquitous. I hadn’t ever taken interest in the who’s who of the carbonated beverage business. Before Mexico, it seemed irrelevant to me; I don’t drink soda, and especially not coke. But this is Refresco Nation, where sugary drinks are as much a part of the meal as the handmade tortillas from the señora at the corner. Can an iconic “global product” play an important role in a single country’s culture? Who’s to claim coke as their own? In Mexico, the ties are tight.