When I was in third grade, our class spent some time studying world cultures. We each chose a country and prepared a project to share with the class detailing things like “geography,” and “traditional dress.” When it was my turn to present my country, I stood proudly and announced to my class that I was part Mexican.
I am not Hispanic.
In fact, my lineage is almost entirely British. I have fair skin and blue-green eyes. I imagine my teacher was probably confused at my declaration, but I was too busy describing the local diet to notice.
Later that evening, my parents took the time to explain to me that while, yes, my great-grandmother had been born in Mexico, it’s not like I had a long line of Mexican ancestors. Verona was every bit as British as her parents before her. They had just been living in Mexico when Verona was born.
“You mean, like they were on vacation?” I asked.
“Sort of,” my mom said.
They were not on vacation.
But it was a school night and, as a parent now, I empathize with my mom’s decision to end the line of questioning there. In actuality, my great-grandmother, Verona Richardson, had been born in Chihuahua, Mexico, in the Mormon polygamist Colonia Juárez.
As it turns out, these early experiences were not an anomaly, but rather the beginning of a confusing lifelong pattern. Every time I thought I had an understanding of who my family was and where we came from, I’d learn something different. It was like being handed a puzzle piece that never quite fit with the ones I already had. For example: though, as I learned in third grade, I am not exactly Mexican, so many of our family traditions have been influenced by the Richardson’s life in Mexico—like our enchiladas. Verona learned how to make red enchilada sauce from scratch in Mexico, and we’ve been making that sauce as a family ever since. There are no written instructions for the sauce; it’s been passed down from parent to child, learning by watching and doing. It’s less of recipe and more of a ritual.
At some point I came to learn that no one else did enchiladas quite like us. My friends always envisioned the enchiladas from the Mexican restaurant in the shopping center next to Rite Aid—little tortilla cylinders stuffed with ground beef and drowned in a red sauce that tasted like the can it had come from. Our enchiladas are different. They are a celebration of the chili sauce. Tortillas are stacked like pancakes on a plate. Tortilla, sauce, cheese, onion. Repeat. When I compared the tiny tortilla tubes to our plates heaped with soft fried corn tortillas, each dressed in a fresh, velvety chili sauce, I knew that our enchiladas were what made our family unique.
We were not unique.
But it wasn’t until I was a teenager that we met the Wrights. Their eyes lit up in recognition when my dad described our stacked enchiladas. “Yes!” they exclaimed. “We thought we were the only ones!” Church history had taken their family to the colonies in Mexico, and they had also emerged with the enchilada stacks. But then my dad started to reminisce about our sauce-making ritual. He waxed poetic about processing the leathery, red chilies , peeling them open to remove the seeds and veins, the dust from the dried peppers wafting into the air and bringing tears (of joy? Irritation? Both?) to your eyes.
The Wrights just smiled politely. “Oh,” they said. “We make our sauce with tomatoes.”
“Oh, yeah,” the Wrights said. “Our ancestors were on the wealthier side, so they made their enchilada sauce with tomatoes. The colonists who weren’t as… well off… made their sauce from chilies.”
“Excuse me?” my entire family—dead and alive—said collectively.
My understanding of my family history and culture is still evolving. But the times when it feels most relevant to me personally are the times when it brings the loose threads of my family story together.
My mom’s side of the family lives in Missouri, and did not join the church until just sixty years ago. They don’t have the strange, hybrid culture that my dad’s side of the family does. But I’ve often heard the story of my depression-era grandpa bringing my depression-era grandma a squirrel from the backyard to prepare for dinner. My grandma grimaced and said, “Oh, Billy. You know squirrels are so greasy!” My dad has, on more than one occasion, teased my mom about that story and the unsophisticated cuisine of her country upbringing. So when my mom heard that the magic chili sauce was “poor-people food,” her eyes lit up.
“We should serve it with a side of squirrel!” she teased. (My mom loves the chili sauce just as much as the rest of our family. She just couldn’t resist the jab.)
The Wright’s revelation had brought the enchilada story full circle for me. I wasn’t very Mexican, and the enchiladas didn’t make us special. Rather, I came from people on both sides of my family who sacrificed to make do. People who were willing to uproot their lives to take care of their families, whether that was traveling across the great dustbowl and making a meal of squirrels, or relocating to Mexico and subsisting on a sauce made from dried chili peppers. That fact alone adds more flavor to a meal than any spice you can buy.
Though, to be clear, we did eventually invite the Wrights over for an enchilada taste-off, and, while their sauce did not taste as much like bland ketchup as I thought it would, I’d take our “poor-people” enchiladas any day.