“Recuerdas a mi amigo, Juan?” Sergio asked me yesterday.
Remember my friend, Juan?
I’m thinking, yes, which one, baby? You know at least 5 men named Juan. I respond with a simple “Sí” because I know he’s going to tell me which Juan, anyway.
He says, “He invited us to dinner tomorrow; he told me last week to let him know a day ahead of time if we can come.”
What? This Juan plans ahead? I’m intrigued. Dinner plans among Mexicans often come together 5 minutes before comida is served. I have learned to like this way of planning via not planning, especially for social time.
Yet when he says, “Do you want to go?”, my inner gringa winces. This will mean we now have three nights in a row of social obligations, we are cooking for at least 10 people on the 24th, we still need to shop for all of it, and I wasn’t intending to take the whole week off.
But my inner latina, who got me into this crazy new life in the first place, points out it’s a little late to shut 'er down now, and says “Si, por qué no?“ Sure, why not?
I ask, “Should we take some beer?”
He says, “No I don’t think so, I don’t know if they drink. They are from a different religion, this is why they are having their special dinner on the 23 and not the 24th”. I think to myself, hmmm, Jehovah’s Witness?
“OK, we’ll take a poinsettia.”
When we arrive (late as usual), I am surprised as we walk into a home decorated in blue and silver for Hanukah. Mexican decoration preferences are often from the “less is a bore” school of thought. More is better, especially during the holidays, and this home is no exception.
A collection of menorahs covers a side table. Glittery Stars of David hang from the ceiling in the dining area, where two homemade banners celebrating hanukkah flank the loaded sideboard full of crystal and dishes. Two lit candles of Shabbat are on another decorated side table.
Juan greets us, a large smiling bearded man wearing a yarmulke. He and his family are prepared to share a beautiful traditional Jewish Shabbat meal with us. I didn't see that one coming in a country where the 98% of the populace is Catholic, the official state religion.
The table is already set with pottery with a beautiful bird pattern. Juan invites us to sit down. The relaxed “prologue chatter” of Mexican acquaintances ensues - How is everyone? And I mean everyone. They go through the list - status of relationships, health, work and general chismes (light gossip) about family, friends, distant acquaintances, complete strangers.
Juan’s lovely wife Blanca appears from upstairs and joins us. Their youngest son, who was born prematurely, is 7 months old. I peek under the blanket covering his stroller; he’s a tiny holiday cherub bundled up and snoozing.
The other “son” is a young teenager, actually a nephew who appears to have adopted his aunt and uncle. He joins us at the table, also wearing a yarmulke. Blanca rests her hand on his shoulder as she explains he is the same to her as un hijo de mi sangre - a son of my own blood.
Among many Mexican families, the boundaries of parenting are fluid; you may end up spending more time at your cousin’s or grandparent’s house than you do your own. In Mexico, “who you know” is taken to a whole different level, and it starts with your family. Cousin relationships are leveraged heavily, and tios (uncles and aunts) are expected to try to help their nieces and nephews.
There are exceptions of course; just as everywhere in the world, not all families are truly close. Lack of resources can strain family ties. Requests for help from family can add up to a lot of pressure on uncles and aunts who have their own children to feed, clothe and launch into the world.
Sergio is the middle son of three boys, his parents divorced when he was three years old. His father’s name is his middle name - Sergio Luis.
His father, Luis Zavala, left the house and returned a few weeks later, but only for Sergio. The dramatic story is that he bundled Sergio up and whisked him away into the night on a motorcycle. Sergio saw his mother from time to time but never returned to her house.
He was never close to his mother, Josefina. He tells me she was unhappy, bitter and favored her oldest son. This was the early 60’s in Mexico City, a decade of change; I don't know, but perhaps Josefina had dreams of doing something different than raising a big family in limited economic circumstances. She did not want more than one or two children; this caused friction with Luis, who, like the Catholic church and most traditional Mexican men at that time, wanted as many hijos as they could create together, regardless of practical considerations.
Luis eventually remarried, but not before raising Sergio as a single father for a few years. He was a loving father - Sergio has a collection of dichos, or sayings, that he learned from his dad and I gather he inherited his sense of humor and general positive outlook from his father.
Luis was also strict, teaching Sergio how to take care of himself from an early age: wash his own clothes, cook his own meals, run errands in the mercado.
Luis walked Sergio to school every day when he was a young boy, and he supervised homework sessions, at times with a severity that some might judge to be abusive. His father wanted more for Sergio, and he knew education was the key to a better life in Mexico.
He held a series of jobs as a chauffeur and bus driver. Unfortunately, he was fighting a losing battle with alcoholism as Sergio grew up. At times they had very little money and lived with extended family that also didn’t have much extra. Some of family did what they could to be helpful, others were abusive, and, in what must have been very confusing to a small child, some were both.
Luis died in a tragic accident when Sergio was 19. This is a critical age for a young man coming of age in a city crowded with other young people. Sergio stayed with family and friends for a few years, yet always felt like he was in the way and moved on frequently. The first time in his life Sergio had his own bed was in his early 20s, living on his own with his girlfriend.
Those early years were very hard, and to be honest life didn't smooth out much for Sergio later, either. I often wonder how is it he is so positive and kind today? How is it he didn't break and succumb to cynicism, drug abuse, or crime as a way to get by?
I believe the main thing that kept him strong and hopeful during those years of moving around, changing schools, watching his father diminish; and even later, while struggling to raise his own sons as a single father - is the knowledge that his father chose him.
In the absence of the love of a mother (which is a tragic loss in the life of a Mexican man, or at least this Mexican man), Sergio knows at his core he was wanted by his father. It is a powerful lodestone.
These thoughts run through my head as I sit at the table across from Juan and Blanca’s older son/nephew. I think, well, at least this earnest young man has won the Tio Lottery!
Before we start dinner, he chants beautiful verses in Hebrew with a facility that shows he’s been breaking bread at this table for a long time. I ask him later about his plans for his Christmas break. His answer surprises me - he says he has a lot of studying to do for an online class he and Juan are working on together. Maybe he’s getting ready for his Bar Mitzvah; I wish I had thought to ask.
Juan gives the father’s blessing to both of his sons. It is a brief, ancient hands on ritual that will carves his love into the lives of his children over many years.
I ask Juan about the nearest temple. He says, yes, there is only one and its in Polanco (the wealthiest colonia in Mexico City, an hour away) so they usually have services in their home. Sergio asks if they ever go out to eat for Shabbat. Juan looks a little shocked and says, no, Shabbat is for the house, and proceeds to show us why.
We finish with the prelude chatter, its time to start the observance. Blanca wheels the stroller over to the table and Juan begins the chanting. The 7 month old, who had been sleeping peacefully, of course decides now is the time to wake up. The chanting pauses to get him settled to his satisfaction. He’s tiny yet he exhibits keen intelligence - his current favorite lap is his father’s and he’s quick to tell the difference as he’s passed around. After a bit of fussing, he is seated in Papa’s lap, Juan’s big hand supporting the baby's tiny tummy as he faces us with his small hands resting on the table. He looks like a tiny rabbi in training. His father resumes the chanting.
Juan is also jiggling the baby slightly with his knee, and pretty soon the baby proceeds to punctuate the chanting with a prolonged bout of unselfconscious gas. After a couple of minutes Blanca interrupts the chanting again, saying “Ai perdoname” and gives into a fit of giggling. We all join in as we were holding back our own snickering as well.
Obviously feeling better and happy to be the center of attention once again, the baby smiles back at all of us from his perch at the head of the table.
We recover what is left of our dignity and continue. The first observance is with the wine - Juan pours a cup for his family and one for Sergio and I to share. It tastes just like communion wine. More chanting. Sergio, who loves music of all kinds, starts to connect with the ritual, it reminds him a bit of the circle chanting they perform in the Aztec danza rituals.
The we proceed with the most important ritual - washing the hands. The men go first into the kitchen and wash hands. Then Blanca and I take our turn - she says, normally, washing hands is done in silence as a form of prayer, but since I’m her guest she explains how to do it and chants for me. It involves cold water, no soap and a specific way of turning your hands under the water.
Hands washed, we return to the table. I’m feeling woozy and I realize I’m starving. It’s almost 10:00 p.m., we were up until 4 the night before at a Posada. I grabbed a quick nap earlier, but I’ve never been a night owl and now my body is reminding of that.
We start with delicious Challah with salt and honey for dipping. Sergio asks if they bought the bread someplace. Juan proudly says, no, my wife made it.
I want to eat the whole braid myself, even though I don’t eat much bread in general. It's still warm, made from a traditional recipe, and it tastes like a big soft pretzel with sesame seeds on the top. Dipped in the salt it is literally manna from heaven to me.
In Mexico almost all the bread is white and sweet, even the pan integral here has more sugar in it than I am used to. One of my concessions to being an expat is that I pay $6 for a loaf of Ezekiel bread at an organic grocery in Coyoacan.
After the challah there are no more chants. Blanca serves a delicious meal of chicken and green salad. She apologizes - she had planned to make a special spaghetti but the gas ran out that afternoon.
Natural gas is plentiful and cheap in Mexico, electricity is expensive. Consequently, almost all stoves (and water heaters) are gas. Most houses like this one maintain a gas tank outside their home. Juan had recently had the tank filled; he and Sergio agree on the likelihood that the gas vendor is unethical and shorted him on the last refill.
I think about how these nice people spent their whole day getting ready for us to come to dinner, with a baby and a last minute menu change in the mix, and I feel humbled. Blanca refuses to let me help serve or clean up, even as they juggle plates, food and the baby, who is now hungry and demanding.
Blanca asks us about our plans, we are still figuring things out, and it’s nice because she doesn’t react with the quizzical look we so often get when we depart from our scripted delivery of “what’s next”. Instead she talks about the importance of living in the moment, which obviously resonates with me. Her inspiration seems to come from the teachings of her faith, reinforced by the life-sharpening experience of having a baby who spent the first 6 month of his life in the hospital.
As the meal comes to an end, I am shutting down a bit - this happens when I’m tired and have spent the entire day speaking spanish. My brain short circuits, half of my spanish leaves me; I have trouble following the conversation, let alone participating.
I nudge Sergio and ask him to order an Uber as we get ready to leave. My phone doesn’t have service yet. He orders an Uber on his phone, which has 8% charge left.
I try one last time to clear a couple of plates. Juan says, “No no! there is one last prayer of thanks for the end of the meal.”
Said prayer ensues, it is beautiful but by this time it’s about 11:30. I can barely keep my eyes open. I confess I spent the prayer time wondering if the Uber will wait for us, and if not, will Sergio’s phone have enough charge to call another?
After the prayer, we make what in Mexico is considered a hurried exit - less than 5 minutes spent on goodbyes and getting out the door - to find that yes, the Uber is still in the street waiting for us. Thank goodness.
We arrive at our apartment and my sweet man offers me a massage. I’m almost comatose as I drift off into sleep with his warm strong hands on my back, warm challah in my tummy and the blessings of the Shabbat heaped upon my head.
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