Food is familia

Local Latinos share why food helps shape identity

I’ve seen Mexican meatball soup, or albondigas, appear on a restaurant menu only twice in my life. Both times I’ve ordered it, while traveling in Mexico, and both times I’ve been disappointed.

My mother, who was born in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas and grew up in Coahuila, makes amazing albondigas. It’s now the dish that usually greets me when I return to visit my parents in the border town of Eagle Pass. With one bite, I know everything’s OK. I’m with familia.

In the second installment of Austin Gente, a new video and story series that explores what it means to be Latino in the U.S., we listened to our stomachs.

Does the food we eat help shape our identity? What does the food you love and grew up with say about you, your family and your culture?

With Latinos in the U.S. coming from diverse backgrounds and kitchens, we talked to three Austinites about how each of their different cultural influences and food experiences give them a unique perspective on who they are today.

Food for the generations

Adelaida “Lala” Garza remembers a time when biting into a taco wasn’t hip or fashionable. It could actually feel shameful at times. Garza, 64, grew up in San Marcos and remembers how classmates at school would ridicule kids who brought homemade tacos for lunch instead of sandwiches.

“They’d point at you and make fun,” she says. “It was embarrassing.” When Garza was hungry, she resorted to eating her lunchtime tacos in secret. She waited until she got off the bus and ate it before she got home.

Tacos had always been a staple in her family — it was what they ate during lunchtime while picking cotton in West Texas as migrant farm workers. The tacos weren’t fancy, maybe potato and egg or bean, but Garza’s mother had a special way of rolling them up like burritos. And after hours of laboring, Garza sat in the back of their truck and savored every bite.

Garza’s mother was known for her tamales, though, and people still talk about them, she says. As time passes, Garza wonders about her own legacy. She runs a daycare in South Austin now, and over the years has fed the children everything from chicken and rice to chorizo and beans. She’s had many parents ask for cooking advice because some children insist on Garza’s style of cooking when they are at home.

“Maybe years from now the kids won’t remember me, but they’ll remember my food,” she says with a smile.

A few years ago, Garza went back to her childhood home in San Marcos with her sister. They took a walk on the property and found themselves cutting cactus paddles to make nopalitos. They removed the thorns, diced and chatted. “It felt so natural,” Garza says. “I find myself doing things mama would have done.” Her heart fills with pride now, not the shame she was once made to feel as a child. She’s happy to keep the traditions alive throughout the generations.

“This is just like when we were kids, huh?” Garza told her sister while preparing the nopalitos. She replied, “Some things just don’t change, Lala.”

Food nourishes the soul

Celebrating anything from birthdays to holidays in Ana María Tekina-eirú Maynard’s childhood home in the Bronx often meant having about 100 guests, dancing, and, of course — food.

“When we had big family parties, dad would cook because he was in the Army during the Korean War and used to cooking for the masses,” she says. For their backyard luaus in their Puerto Rican neighborhood in the Bronx, Maynard’s father would buy a whole pig that would go on a spit around 7 a.m. and roast for hours.

“Daddy was a party animal, and instilled in me a pride about Puerto Rican culture,” says Maynard, who is now the founding executive and artistic director for the Puerto Rican Folkloric Dance & Cultural Center.

At Christmas time, Maynard’s father made an eggnog-like drink called coquito. When she left New York for graduate school at Carnegie Mellon in Pennsylvania, she asked her father for the recipe. She still has his handwritten note.

When he passed away, Maynard’s family didn’t have a typical service for him.

“We had a party, just the way he would have liked it, with food and music,” she says. “I remember sitting there thinking it was weird because it was a party, and I felt like if I turned around I’d see him somewhere. I definitely felt his presence there. It was a celebration of life.”

Food is important in Puerto Rican culture, she says. “It doesn’t just nourish your body, but also your soul.”

Food is love

Whenever he flies from Austin back home to his native São Paulo, Brazil, to visit, the first thing Frederico Geib does at the airport is order pão de queijo, or cheese bread, with an espresso. “Some people ask, ‘Cheese bread, what’s so special about that?’ I can have a pão de queijo in Austin, but it’s not the same taste,” he says. “If I’ve been on flight for 12 hours, I’m going to get my pão de queijo and espresso. For me, it means I’m home.”

As a kid, he once mentioned how much he loved his mother’s stroganoff, and she never forgot that. Although most people associate the dish with European cuisine, Brazilians adapted the dish to their own palette and it’s now become a popular Brazilian meal. Geib remembers his mother slicing up thin potato sticks with the dish, a rare treat only enjoyed with stroganoff at his house.

One time, while awaiting his visa, it took Geib about two years before returning to Brazil. When he finally did visit, he could smell the stroganoff from his mother’s front doorway, he says.

“It’s definitely about affection,” he says. “When my mom was cooking that dish it was pure love for me. My relationship with mom is not always rosy, but it’s wonderful that with food, we don’t even have to say ‘I love you.’ When she cooks stroganoff it makes me feel loved.”

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