la matriarca mexicana

The cocina economica is a staple of small town Mexico’s foodscape. In Tehuacán, the ubiquitous, unnamed cocina economica offers the cheapest meal. Whether tucked into a wall-ed off corner in a market or indicated by a painted wall, street-side, inside you’ll find identical ingredients whipped up into filling dishes for lunch: quesadillas, huaraches, huevos a la mexicana, memelas, caldo de pollo, caldo de res, pozole. The process is slow. Sometimes I feel my U.S. sensibility slapping me in the face– does it really take 30 minutes to scramble an egg?! But then I’m reminded of the phrase, hecho con amor — made with love. In the same way that the holy figure, the Mexican mother, the matriarch and authority of family, is known to cook lunch throughout the morning and into the late afternoon, perfection can’t be rushed. Related to mealtime, “rushing,” in fact — hurry up already!– doesn’t exist here.

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These cocinas economicas are nearly all run by women. Women seated at a table, pulling apart quesillo into thin strips. Women with orange juicers, slamming one citrus half into the iron press, and just as soon flinging it onto the floor, industrious and mechanical. Women flipping tortillas by hand, bent over hot comales. Women stirring te de jamaica and adding more and more sugar. “¿Está dulce, si?” they ask when I take a sip. Claro que si. Siempre está dulce. 

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Of course, I’ve encountered a few men running these little kitchens. They wipe down the card tables that fill the space. But more often then not, the men staff pollerias and carnicerias, meat shops. They drive combis, the public transportation network of vans. Women sell flowers and fruit and fold quesadillas. At least in blue collar jobs, the gender roles feel literal. Traditional. Predictable.

Mexican mothers are in control. I have yet to meet an unmarried man in Tehuacan who isn’t still living with his mother. Most grown adults still stay with their families until their wedding day. Mothers call their sons and daughters at 9 p.m., 11 p.m., past midnight, “checking in” on them, demanding to know what they’re doing, who they’re with. It doesn’t matter if they’re 25, 30, 35.

Who is this Mexican matriarch? The provider, the chef, the unchallengeable authority. The holder of sazón. 

Buen sazón translates to “good seasoning” but means so much more than a few spices and a pinch of salt. Sazón is the intuitive ability, an inherently feminine skill, that la mexicana whips into fruition in the kitchen like a bruja. Kitchen sensibility. She adjusts a dish to please everyone in the family: the sister who doesn’t like the sopa too salty; the son who tops anything and everything with thick, fatty crema; the brother-in-law who’s sensitive to too much chili.

But what comes with this constant provision is the next generation’s inability to cook without burning the rice. Thirty-year-old men who don’t know how to dice an onion. One of my favorite writers, Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie, criticizes domestic gender roles. “The knowledge of cooking does not come pre-installed in the vagina,” she writes with sharp logic in her latest feminist manifesto, Dear Ijeawele. “Cooking is learned. Cooking—domestic work in general—is a life skill that both men and women should ideally have. It is also a skill that can elude both men and women.”

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I watch these traditional gender roles play out in my own temporary home, where I’m staying with an open-armed, well-fed family. The lot stretches from a musically talented teenage son to the aunt’s unemployed boyfriend and the abuela who operates the hardware shop downstairs. The mother runs the home, in particular the kitchen. And although I’m allowed to slice a few nopalitos or break green beans into bite-sized pieces with my hands, la mamá prefers to do it all, or so it seems.

Although I’m quick to judge– why don’t the guys help out?–  I’ve recognized that this is the mother, Eloisa’s, art. Chicana writer, Sandra Cisneros explores what she calls the “That’s nice, mi’ja syndrome,” essentially giving women a pat on the back for trying anything at all. “We can’t afford as women to be mediocre, or even good, especially now,” writes Cisneros in A House of My Own. “We don’t have that luxury. Our best weapon in adverse times—excellence.” Whether in the political spotlight, in the classroom, or en la cocina, perfectionism, to some extent, feels necessary.

After hours at the stove and sink, Eloisa sets pot after pan of food atop trivets on the table, sits, sighs, rests her chin between her wrists, and stares, satisfied, at the rainbow work of art in front of her: chocolatey-brown frijoles, orangey-red arroz, deep green nopales con cebolla, fiery salsa picante, mild salsa verde, golden papas y pollo, and a few memelitas. It’s a feast for a regular Tuesday. Arming herself with excellence, this is what Eloisa quietly does, every damn afternoon. She slowly and meticulously melds together a masterpiece that her family devours.

Although I never hear a gracias from anyone within the walls of our house, Eloisa knows her food is delicious. It disappears every day. But I can’t help but wonder– where is the gratitude for the woman in the kitchen? Do we need a pat on the pack, a subtle applaud, for an everyday task? Maybe not. But the inequality feels tangible here. A slight edge– a dissatisfaction– felt by seeing the men leave their dishes on the table while the women clean up; felt by watching a man on a motorcycle slow to a roll, matching the speed of a woman walking alone.

I see women everywhere doing their best to sell a few platefuls, opening a cocina economica in the spare room of their single-floor home, feeding a city with affordable, fresh food. But I’ve also seen them on the walls in my neighborhood. They pop up in vibrant beiges and cafés and creamy clays along wide side streets, where I hadn’t noticed them the day before. Who are these women? Someone’s dirty-mouthed abuela? A niece, a sister, a novia de chocolate? A self-portrait? Who are the artists– men or women? And does it matter? These graffiti ladies, the enormous, four-foot faces that shock against bold colors in the harsh summer sunlight, irradiate power, humor, strength, and sex. They’re loud, chins pointed toward the sky, eyes wide and glowing with awareness and curiosity that demand a response, wondering, perhaps, if today they’ll hear a gracias. Someone, it seems, is certainly taking notice.

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