“Semitas” to soothe the soul

Translated  by Marvin Najarro

“Grandma, speaking about ‘Comapa,’ do you know how  ‘semitas’ are made?” I asked my grandmother, after 17 years in the diaspora, of which even I was surprised. “How is it that, Negra?” I said to myself, “that you haven’t asked your grandmother the recipe for ‘semitas’ before.” My grandmother began to dictate the ingredients to me, for “semitas,” “pan de arroz,” “quesadillas” and “salporas.” I pulled out a sheet of paper and wrote them down. 

“Figure out the sugar,” she told me, “add it depending on what your taste tells you. Depending on the amount of flour add the eggs, margarine, cinnamon water, and milk. Some people use this and that, but I like it this way. You can make them according to your personal taste.”   

It was also my grandmother who taught me how to “tortear” or to make tortillas, and to understand the “fogón” signals, because fire alerts you. For example, when a visitor is coming, the fire becomes agitated and then we see those flare-ups, that’s how in one occasion she knew that I was coming to visit her, when I emerged between the “piedrona” and the “plumajillo”, I found her “torteando” in the kitchen, and my grandfather standing, leaning against the door. The sound of her hands patting into shape the tortillas was herd all the way to “doña Adelona’s” store. “Ungrateful,” she said, when she sow me crossing the stone pathway. “The whole morning the fire kept telling me that you were coming.” My presence didn’t surprise her.  

Back in those days, in order to let somebody know that you were coming for a visit, you had to phone the only lady who had a telephone in the village, wait for an hour and then call again to see if they had found her and could answer the call. It was in the same way in Peronia, in my childhood. When I had the interview for my first job as a Physical Education teacher, I also gave the phone number of a neighbor, they called me at that number to tell me that I have been hired, they left me a message telling me that they would call again at a specified hour because they needed to talk to me. Today, today is different, which like everything else, is one thing for another … 

But when my grandmother was young, there were no buses and they had to travel on horseback, and on foot, no matter what they could transport, hence those large peasant pilgrimages on the trails at the edge of the ravines, with their loads of corn, beans, and firewood, to reach the towns, and sell or exchange them for food or other essential goods. The famous “trueque” or barter. 

The conversations with my grandmother revolve around her village, from the time she was young, because I have the need to nurture the memory of the umbilical cord, the root, but also to know her as a woman, regardless of her being my grandmother. I love listening to her narrate the life in the old days, for example, during Ubico’s time people could not kill their own cows and had to ask permission from the government, therefore people had to go to the thicket and spent three days there, killing the bovine, and putting the meat to dry, which they left hidden among the rocks so that the animals would not eat it, and little by little they would take the beef to the villages, because if the authorities became aware, they  would go to jail . 

And then, that during the military dictatorship, the guerrillas and soldiers both came by asking for food, except that the guerrillas knocked on the door and asked for a favor, while the soldiers knocked down the doors and took everything, even the feathers of the chickens. And they would leave the villagers without their sacks of corn, and beans, which helped them to survive the months when there was no harvest. And the “cochitos” too were part of the loot, and that depending on the urgency, the soldiers made the women cook for them right there. And perhaps, my grandmother recounts, those “cochitos” or young pigs, were the only savings a family could have, they fattened it all year round to sell it for Christmas, so they could buy shoes, fabric to make clothes, but the soldiers left them empty handed. And that happened in the East were the armed conflict was not as hard as in the West 

I knew my grandmother’s childhood friends, how they helped one another, like when some of them couldn’t go to the mill to grind the corn to make the tortillas, the others passed by and took the pails on their waists and on their heads, and returned after a while with the “masa” or corn dough. Without saying anything, a communication of the soul, which only exists in the villages, in the older generations. And they did the same with the water jars. I have never seen such an act of authentic solidarity. 

When my grandmother was a child, the “río Paz” was a flowing river, today is a pitiful trickle of water in a desert of rocks. Like the creek. The oaks were abundant, the forests impressive. And people could leave the doors wide open that nothing happened. The “cuatreros” or cattle thieves began to appear when she was and adolescent, they stole cattle from the rich people. Today the criminal gangs steal everything they can get their hands on. The village is no longer what it used to be. Neither does the world. 

From her stories, I learned about the rennet of the cow to make cheese, and that in our time were the curd tablets; and how they made olive soap for bathing. When I hear my grandmother speak, I get into the characters of Juan Rulfo, just as the elders in “Comapa” speak so do the characters of Rulfo, but it even seems that it is the same town, that is why Rulfo’s texts amaze me, because I return again and again to my native “Comapa,” to talk with my grandfather, the two of us sitting on the “piedrona” amid the coffee trees and the “izotales.” 

My grandmother has an extraordinary memory and her way of narrating, which she inherited from “Mamita”, her mother, was inherited by my aunts. I grew up listening to the stories of “Comapa” every day; through them I fell in love with “Comapa.” From my grandfather’s stories, I learned that there are no gender differences between them because my aunts were so courageous that the men’s work was done by them, shoulder to shoulder with my grandfather. For that reason my grandfather was not surprised when I came out with the ruckus that I liked soccer instead of basketball, or that I played marbles instead of dolls. He laughed watching me splitting wood with a sledgehammer and a wedge, or when I grabbed his machete “cuto” and accompanied him to the woods to cut firewood. It was my grandfather who taught me to make adobes. But he enjoyed more when he watched me in the street fights, fighting punch by punch with the boys, but it bothered my grandmother that one day they were going to hit me, she used to tell me, to which my grandfather replied, “there is no way they are going to hit this animal, don’t you see the animal that she is.” 

Because in “Comapa” people are animals, thus the existence of “animales brutos” or brute animals: “Animal bruto, I told you not to do it that way.” “Animal bruto you took the wrong way.” “Animal bruto you took the fire out of the beans.” 

Of those aunts, there is the aunt who emigrated very young, and with whom we could not share enough, there are not family memories of her as with the others. I get in touch with her now, in the diaspora, now that I am an adult, to try to connect, so that the bridge continues to exist. She tells me about her childhood in “Comapa,” and about her adult life in the country where she lives now. “Aunt”, I say to her, “and do you remember the taste of ‘pacayas’ and the ‘izote flowers’? Do you remember the ‘chaparron’ fruits in the wellspring?” And the two of us together begin to rebuild the “Comapa” that she left as a child, and that I knew as a teenager, during my short visits. And migration unites us both, as well as my other aunts who immigrated from the village to the capital city. Only my aunt and I went further, we crossed borders in very similar ways. That unites us and is a very strong thread. And I am getting to know her as an adult, as a woman, as a migrant, and as an aunt. 

Thanks to technology, in this era of video calls, I am able to see my grandmother; her facial features; her eyes color; her pronounced cheekbones that I inherited; and her long sleeves shirts, rolled up to the elbows, which are also my fascination, and which I use in the same way because for me they are part of that thread, of the fabric of “Mamita’s” entrails. And from “Mamita,” my great-grandmother, come the recipes that she gave me to make bread.      

“Grandma,” I show her the “semitas”, “look how I baked them.” “Ungrateful,” she said, “you overbaked them. You have to cook them at low heat. That thing you use to bake them in the stove is different from the wood oven. You have to keep an eye on them so that they don’t burn.”  

And that’s how I made my first “semitas” from “Comapa,” a recipe that my grandmother gave me, and which belongs to “Mamita.” I think that maybe in the third or fourth attempt they will come out like the ones from “Comapa.” As of now, I have enjoyed this first attempt at every moment, and making them was a trip to my native “Comapa”, to the entrails of “Mamita”, and the longing for the big hands of my grandmother. 

For me, cooking is weaving the fabric of the ancestors. There are searches that one has to do with the urgency of the ineluctable, in the case of “semitas”, it is not only the “maicillo” or sorghum, the cinnamon water or the way of “amasar” or kneading; it is a continuity. It is tying and untying knots. And it is also a conversation with my “ancestras,” although in the borders of time we have not met; it is to recognize myself in them through the culinary art. And it is on me that “Mamita’s” recipes survive my death, it will be the legacy, so that one day whoever wants to go deep into that that cannot be postponed, will also find them and drink them as a potion that soothes the soul and the spirit; to give continuity to this ancestral thread. 

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Ilka Oliva Corado @ilkaolivacorado

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