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Mexico Beyond the Beaches

When I was younger and would tell my friends that we were going to Mexico for Christmas, they would say things like, "Oh that's not fair! I'm so jealous!" But I was always quick to reassure them that it really wasn't that cool. We wouldn't be staying at a resort next to a beach, where I'd lounge around in a swimming suit, drinking (virgin) margaritas and reading my book all day. We'd be staying in the middle of a dusty city, with potholes for roads and hot or cold (depending on the time of year) concrete houses. We'd be using showers that may or may not have hot water at any given time. And I was sure to have several run-ins with cockroaches. Big ones.

While I always loved playing with my cousins, eating homemade tortillas, drinking soda out of glass bottles, watching novelas with my Abuelita and our day-trip to the beach, it took me a while to see the beauty in the everyday comings and goings of the city of Hermosillo. In the simplicity of life there, and the simultaneous richness of the culture. When I was a kid, those things didn't matter. We would be lying around my Abuelita's house bored, and my dad would tell me to go in and talk to my Abuelita. To ask her about her life and what she used to do and the things she loved. I always rolled my eyes, but would do it anyway, talk to her for a while as I helped her wash dishes or clothes in the backyard before she had a kitchen sink or a washing machine.

As I got older, I started to really enjoy our time together. And I began to realize how neat it was to be able to go to Mexico (even the non-resort side) as often as we did. I began to appreciate the nuances, the differences, the "inconveniences," for what they were: a different and beautiful way of life.

My Abuelita passed away when I was 20 and I'm sad that the adult me didn't get to connect with her more. Every time we go, I wish she were there so I could ask her about her life and what she used to do and the things she loved. My book, Little Mornings, has a few details and stories in it that are based on her life and some of her experiences, most of which she didn't tell me herself because they were tragic and she didn't talk about them. She was a resilient, amazingly strong woman and I'm proud to be her granddaughter. When Little Mornings is finally published, I'll dedicate it to her.

So, coming up are some of the little things, small moments, that made this trip to Mexico another memorable one. Most are things that others wouldn't see as exciting in any way. But what I've learned is that it's the people that matter most. I love my family. Each of them is special to me. But I've also come to love and appreciate Mexicans as a people. And on this trip I tried to really see individuals and places for who and what they are and not just as faces and places passing on a train. I feel like this, at it's core, is what Operation Amigos is all about. Really SEEING PEOPLE and places.

Los Lugares (The Places)

Pulling up to my Abuelita's house after a 20+ hours-long drive was like finally getting to an oasis in a years-long desert. We'd pull up along side the house, get out and stretch, and then my dad would make a beeline for the front gate, pull open the screen door and yell, "Amá, llegamos!" ("Ma, we're here!")

Showing our kids where we would play in the backyard or on the porch, and how Grandpa and Grandma had to use the outdoor shower and toilet when they lived here was priceless. It was even better when my mom and brother tried to recreate his bath time in the big (but not as big as we remember) metal tub that's still there.

This porch has been the location of countless conversations, doll parties, imagined drive-thru restaurants (because of the slide-open bedroom window that looks out onto it) and more greetings and farewells than I can count. When we would be packed up in the car, pulling away to start the thousand-mile journey, this is where Abuelita would stand and wave to us until we couldn't see her anymore.

When we go to the beach, it's a given that there will be people trying to sell things. You can 100% count on people selling palo fierro (iron wood) figures, and jewelry. This guy I was bargaining with (whose name I can't remember) was trying to get me to purchase something at a certain price by telling me he'd get in trouble with his wife if he sold it for less. I believe it! We agreed on a price we could both handle, and I got a few unique pieces that I don't yet have in my collection. And, hopefully, he didn't get yelled at!

At one point we started playing spike ball and a guy who'd been walking up and down the beach selling ceviche and fruit decided to stop and play with us (he's the one on the right with his hand out). He didn't last long though. We're not very good yet and he didn't get to even touch the ball, so he took off. Maybe next time!

This is Silvia and she was selling necklaces that she'd made herself from shells and beads. Isn't she beautiful? When we were talking, I could tell that Spanish wasn't her first language. Though there are several groups that are native to this area, the Yaqui tribe is kind of a symbol of Sonora. So, I kind of assumed that's the tribe she came from. My dad later guessed she was probably from the Seri tribe. Hopefully she doesn't see this and get offended if she's neither!

My Abuelita was a teacher and principal and she spoke the Yaqui language because she taught their children. At the entrance to Hermosillo is this representation of a Yaqui:

And you'll find figures like this one everywhere:

The cemetery where my Abuelita is buried is a truly amazing place to explore. You might think you're in a normal neighborhood. Some people build houses and fences and porches around the tombs of their loved ones, and they bring framed photos, toys, gifts, and flowers to leave with them.

Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), the way you see it on Coco, isn't quite as big here. Go visit the state of Michoacan for the all of that! But this cemetery is still hopping on those days (November 1-2). People will come here and bring food, chairs and music and hang out in their loved one's "house" or on their porch all day. This is the kind Ryan says he wants (in the FAR distant future!). I'm trying to figure out how to get a permit for something like it in Utah. Not sure how it's going to work out, sweetheart!

My Abuelita's grave is simple, beautiful, and engraved with her favorite scripture: "I have fought a good fight. I have finished my course. I have kept the faith." (2 Tim 4:7) Boy is that the truth.

Some of my favorite places to drive around are the oldest parts of Hermosillo: Centro and Villa de Seris. I love the tall windows, beautiful wooden doors and shutters, and the open courtyards in the middle of the buildings that I catch brief glimpses of as we're driving past.

And murals! I bet Louis doesn't know he's on an old building in downtown Hermosillo, Mexico. But he'd probably love it!

My cousins say that what I know of Mexico is the ugliest part. Where my cousin, Diana, and her husband lived before is green and mountainous, full of lakes and rivers, and colonial architecture and beauty. I've been to Cancún and Playa del Carmen and Mérida. I know some of the beauty in other parts. But I love it here too. This place holds memories that make it beautiful to me.

La Comida (The Food)

One of our favorite things to do when we go to Mexico is to eat. And high on the list is getting hot dogs (or dogos) at the Uni. Lots of hot dog vendors set up in front of the University of Sonora every night, but we've been to this same guy quite a few times. There are always a lot of people and he's always busy. During a pause this time, I went and chatted with him for a minute. His name is Rogelio and he's one of the original Uni hot dog vendors. For as long as he's been in Hermosillo, he's been making and selling hot dogs there. It's even on his hat. The original since 1975.

On our last day in Hermosillo we wandered into the municipal market and found some people selling Sonoran specialties. Coricos, coyotas, carne machaca, and these big tortillas called sobaqueras. We usually get them on the road to Hermosillo in a little town called Magdalena. This is Martina making the tortillas. She would toss them onto the big comal and then use her bare hands to flip them after a few seconds (maybe that's why she's got a bandage on one hand?)

Tacos are another must-have in Hermosillo. Most food here is eaten with flour tortillas. You eat your beans, carne, eggs, chorizo, picadillo, cheese, potatoes, etc, etc with flour tortillas. But when you have tacos at a cart or a restaurant (carne asada, carnitas, al pastor, etc), it's common to have them with corn tortillas.

The place we went for them this year was fantastic. As we were leaving, I noticed this girl in the corner making the tortillas.

Flour tortillas you roll out on a floured surface with a rolling pin. But for corn tortillas you use a metal tortilla press to flatten them. And contrary to the info in certain You Tube videos out there, you DO NOT put the press on the stove! You flatten the dough in the press, but then take the tortilla out and cook it on a hot comal.

Tamales are an absolute must at Christmastime, and my Abuelita made the best I've ever tasted. My aunt and my cousin have been making them since she passed away, and they're TASTY! But they're just not quite the same. And I won't even mention what they were like the times I've tried making them. NO WAY! Not even close.

When you eat tamales and menudo and turkey at Christmas, you don't eat them with tortillas. You eat them with bread-- soft rolls they call birote in Sonora, or crispier, french bread-type rolls called bolillos (in some places they call this type birote). We went to the panadería to get some on Christmas Eve day. Customers were hurrying to get their bags of bread and get going, but I was mesmerized by what was happening in the back.

I asked these guys how long they'd been at it that day. They said they'd been working the "Christmas Eve service" since one that morning and would keep going until they closed in the evening. The bread was going out the door almost as fast as they could get it out of the oven. One of the men told me that this family has had the panadería, and therefore has been doing this Christmas Eve service, for about 40 years.

Every place has an identity and food is a strong part of that identity.