While society changes, tortillas stay the same

Helena Rodriguez

I was proud of myself one day when I cooked pancakes and bacon for my 1 1/2-year-old niece, Marissa.
You see, I’m not a very domestic person, but I figured Marissa, being a human vacuum machine like most tots, would quickly absorb my hot cakes.
Well, Marissa gives me this strange, twisted look and next thing I know, she’s taking the pancake out of her mouth and playing with it. Her subtle way of letting me know she did not like my cooking.
Then I realized what was really going on.
My sister, Julie, has Marissa spoiled with her down home, hearty cooking. We’re talking eggs, potatoes, beans, carne, tortillas and chile on a regular basis. Nothing like my eat-and-run meals or failed attempts at a home cooked one.
Funny thing is, these traditional Mexican meals, which use to be steak dinners for the poor, have quickly become fast food staples. They were right in the movie, “Selena,” when they said, “Gringos can’t get enough Mexican food.” Especially nowadays. I heard that the sale of tortillas surpasses sales of traditional bread and salsa has replaced ketchup as America’s No. 1 condiment.
Marissa loves taking pieces of tortilla and dipping them in beans. When my nephew, Bobby Stoppel, was little, he loved to sneak tortillas while my mom was cooking and dip them in beans. He looked like a little Huckleberry Finn with his little overalls, light brown hair and freckles, happily eating his beans and tortillas.
Mom used to tell us girls we couldn’t get married until we learned how to make tortillas and Dad would be in a very bad mood if there were no tortillas. We always had to have beans, too.
Can you imagine being a Mexican American and not liking beans? Well that was me, and it was tough growing up at times. Mom says I loved beans as a baby, but my theory is she fed me one too many. To this day, I cannot eat beans unless they are mashed, spiced and served with something else. I tried to like beans. I hated being accused of really liking them when I didn’t. They made me gag.
Sometimes I felt like Marilyn from the Munster family. Remember her? The only normal one in a family of creepy characters but her family thought she was the crazy one. Or maybe I was the crazy one, I don’t know, but I better stop here before my family disowns me.
Why on earth, though, would I act like I didn’t like beans? One day Mom announced we were only having beans and tortillas for dinner. I was like, “Hello? What am I supposed to eat?”
I do love tortillas, though, and will eat them with almost anything. But I do remember being embarrassed once — before tortillas became “cool” — when mom made me a sandwich with tortillas to take to our end-of-the-year school picnic.
It reminds me of a story a reader named Johnny Silvas shared with me when I worked for the Abilene Reporter-News in Abilene, Texas, last year.
Silvas was sitting inside La Popular Restaurant in Abilene and noticed an elderly Hispanic man watching an Anglo family eat carne guisada and tortillas. Suddenly, the elderly man smiled to himself. Later, Silvas asked him why he was smiling. The man told Silvas how his family was so poor when he was growing up that they could never afford to eat out.
“We used to go behind the school to eat our food,” the man said. “We were too embarrassed to eat our tortilla burritos in front of the other kids. They would make fun of us.”
Then the old man added, “Some things change and some things stay the same. I’m still poor, but I’m glad I don’t have to hide anymore, to eat my tortillas calientitas.”

Helena Rodriguez is a staff writer for Freedom Newspapers of New Mexico. She can be reached at
helena_rodriguez@link.freedom.com