What I’ve learned in Chiapas

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I’m almost done grading the Unit 6 exam my ESL class completed yesterday. The door to my room is slightly open allowing an aroma of freshly popped corn to waft in, over, and around me. I’ve been listening to soft acoustic guitar music yet suddenly I’ve lost my peace. Soon enough, my host makes his way to this room and softly knocks on the door, an enamel bowl in his hand. I think he—my uncle— enjoys entertaining, he smiles when he hands me the bowl as if my reaching out for it were all the thanks he needed. In anticipation, I settle back down by the bed and only then look down on my dinner. Sure enough, they are drenched in hot sauce.(Much like my sister makes her own popcorn when she wants to make sure I won’t pick from her plate.) I don’t know why, but I’m not surprised. At their dinner table, this summer family of mine has heard me mention time and again that I am not used to eating salsa. I push it away from me at restaurants, and politely refuse it during dinner. Nevertheless I’ve been in Pueblo Nuevo, Chiapas twenty-one days, and have managed to eat: tostadas, elote, papitas, doritos, tuna, and now palomitas with hot stuff on top. I lean towards the bowl, inhale and recognize the intense scent of Salsa Huichol. My Mexican family knows that I never take sauce with anything, if I can help it. I’ve refused it since I can remember. Nevertheless, my own father has never stopped offering it to me when we eat tortillas on Friday evenings.
“No esta picante, pruebala con tus taquitos.”
“Papi it is not only about the spice”, I say, “I dislike the very essence of salsa, gracias.” A discussion on the essence of salsa ensues. Anyhow, every few Fridays he will do it again, subtly making sure the salsa is within my reach. Maybe its a conspiracy, and all of his extended family is in on it. I have heard them use analogies involving a big bowl of homemade salsa into which everyone dips their burritos, to emphasize the importance of Togetherness. They are so wholly Mexican when they eat, now I realize this is why allowances are made for my Otherness only in conversation but any deviation from their standards is not welcome at the table. I may be different in speech and thought but its like they are sure I belong to them when we eat together. I hadn’t thought of it until now as,surprisingly, I’m decimating the popcorn. I’ve had to eat or drink things I did not agree with before out of respect for my hosts in other countries. Hot milk first thing in the morning, for example, which is a story of self-discovery on its own. Eventually, I grow to accept most of those dishes, or drinks. I might even grow to like them. For some reason, I never thought I’d have to accept hot sauce in Mexico. I was born here thus I have the inalienable right to refuse Mexican hot sauce, right? Regardless, I am feeling pride as looking down on my mostly empty bowl, splattered with the bright orange of Huichol on the sides. I’m never going to love it, but maybe someday I’ll be able to reach for salsa on a Friday evening with my dad looking on. He might notice, and feel proud. After twenty-one days in Pueblo Nuevo, Chiapas: I know I will.

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