When you understand but can’t speak, just eat pupusas

Anna Buckley / HelloGiggles, Katherine Frey, Roberto Machado Noa, Romulo Yanes / Getty Images

Across the plastic table at El Comal, my grandma tells me to get the pupusas revueltas, and because she’s the woman who kept me alive during the summers of my childhood, I smile and nod and practice saying “revueltas” under my breath while she talks to my mom in rapid-fire Spanish.

Re-vuel-tas. Roll the “r.” Rrr-ev-uel-tas. The vowels are all wrong. My tongue stumbles in the rush to pronounce everything at once. I ditch my embarrassing attempt at a Spanish accent and draw it out flatly, exaggerating each part into something undecipherable but distinctly more comfortable — rev-well-tahs. Perfect. Lock me up in Mexico and throw away the key.

I quietly give up and listen to my mom and grandma speak in a language fluid enough to sound the way butter spreads. I can pick out enough bits and pieces to know they’re talking about my aunt in Texas, but when my grandma turns to me and asks if I remember Rosie, I can’t form the words of my response. Of course I remember her. She gave me a box of Mexican candy and smelled like roses.

“Si,” I start, then direct the rest of my answer to my mom, who relays it to my grandma, who laughs and grips my hand. This is how we speak: a trifecta of translation, separated by the table between us and the menu items I can’t pronounce.

Pupusas on blue background
Aaron Ortiz / Flickr

For as long as I can remember, I haven’t been able to speak to my grandma. Decades ago, she crossed the border to the United States from Juárez, Mexico with her five children, and those children became parents and dentists and teachers, and my mom — between working two to three jobs at a time, going to college, and raising me — only ever spoke to me in English. Today, I’m a light-skinned Latina who can barely order tacos. On my high school water polo team, my teammate called me the most whitewashed Mexican she knew, and I wasn’t even mad (was I supposed to be mad?) because it made me reflect on all the times I tried to haltingly throw the Spanish cobbled together from my high school classes at my grandma. She would always nod and get the gist. That’s how we worked: with gists.

It wasn’t always this way. When I was in elementary school, I would spend long summers at home with my grandma while my parents commuted to San Diego and Los Angeles for work, and I was still young enough not to care that my grandma didn’t understand my English. I understood her, though. I must have, because we spent so much time together. I remember two things from that time: Tae Bo videos and eating the authentic Mexican food she cooked for me daily — frijoles, sopa, nopales, burritos on handmade tortillas filled with her fried potatoes. I ate it all without question because it was unquestionably delicious, familiar because it came from my grandma’s hands, and foreign because it was nothing like the square pizzas and canned fruit cocktails I would get for lunch during the school year. When I wasn’t eating, I would flail in our living room watching Tae Bo videos while she sat and watched and laughed.

I was never ashamed — not of my sick moves à la Billy Banks, not of my one-sided conversations with my grandma, and not of my inability to actually speak a word of Spanish. I was happy, and she was happy, and that was enough.

Water on table
m0122 / Flickr

When I applied to college, I listed “Hispanic” on my application because I knew I was supposed to and I knew I was not white. But when I later received an invitation to my school’s Chicano student organization, I didn’t know what to do with it. Once, I walked toward the building during one of the organization’s weekly meetings, tempted by the promise of free tamales, but I stopped short of opening the door. I pictured myself standing in a corner of the room while everyone else spoke in rapid-fire Spanish. I told myself I might run into other people like me: too brown to be white and too white to be Mexican. But if I was alone, what would I have to say — that I had been the most whitewashed Mexican on my water polo team? Would I admit that at Mexican grocery stores, the cashiers always switch from Spanish to English when they greet me?

Later that year, one of my professors, the indomitable writer Susan Straight, invited me to speak in her mixed-race novel class. I stood at the front of the lecture hall and told a group of strangers that, culturally, I’m a slice of stale Wonder Bread: plain, malleable, something that tastes like cotton on the tongue. As I spoke, my hands shook. I couldn’t hear my own voice. But after I’d told my story, hands shot skyward and other people began to tell their own: women who were shamed by their matriarchs for not speaking their language, children who couldn’t have actual conversations with their parents, cousins who had been told they were “too white” to be a part of the family (and even when it was a joke, it hurt). Standing in front of that kaleidoscope of mish-mashed identities, I remembered how I felt when I spent hours with my grandma watching Tae Bo. In that moment, I didn’t feel ashamed.

But when I first stopped in front of the door to the Chicano student organization’s meeting, I hadn’t yet met people with stories like mine. I thought that taking their food — our food? — would feel like appropriation if I didn’t speak Spanish, didn’t grow up identifying as a Chicana, didn’t spend any time at all learning about my culture beyond how to properly scoop rice and beans with a tortilla. But now I wonder if I might have run into other slices of Wonder Bread at that meeting. Maybe we would have shared stories about our grandmas while we loaded up our paper plates with still-warm tamales. After all, the only time I feel truly Mexican is when I eat the food.

Anna Buckley / HelloGiggles

The server comes over and, in Spanish, asks for our orders. My grandma orders menudo, and my mom orders for me — we’re both getting pupusas revueltas, the words falling gracefully from her fluent lips as I mouth “revueltas” like a fish. When the food arrives, I watch my grandma prepare her soup, and I’ll one day copy her when I confidently order menudo on my own: she shakes a generous amount of oregano over the greasy surface, squeezes lime into the broth, stirs in diced white onions. Sips. Nods.

My pupusas look like fat tortillas, and they smell like oil and masa. My grandma tells my mom to place the cabbage and salsa on top, and I follow suit without question. If she says it’s good, I trust her, slicing into my first pupusa so I get a forkful of everything.

“What’s in here?” I ask my mom.

She passes over the question to my grandma, and I parse her response: queso, frijoles, chicharrón. Cheese, beans, pork. All good things. It tastes like a salty, fatty heaven, hot and crisp at once because of the cold cabbage, soft from the fresh tortilla, good, good, good. My grandma laughs and grips my hand because she, of course, knew I would like them. She knew me better than I knew myself.

Pupusas aren’t Mexican — they’re from El Salvador. We ate them at a Mexican restaurant in my hometown, where I grew up without speaking Spanish, where my grandma taught me what real frijoles should taste like, where I started to build an identity that fell somewhere between being Mexican and something else.

I’m still struggling to understand what it means to exist somewhere between cultures. But at El Comal that day, around a plastic table, I felt connected to something else: my family, my food, and our strange, happy blend of tastes that formed something whole.

This essay is part of The Blend, a new HelloGiggles vertical all about the mixed experience. To learn more about The Blend (including how you can send us your pitches), check out our intro post.

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