My Abuela Libby read tarot cards and she had a big following for doing this. When my Dad would visit her, there would often be cars in front of the house with 5-10 people waiting in the living room to have their cards read by her. She must have been gifted to always have people wanting her readings. To some people, this practice makes her a witch. A bruja. But I know that descriptor makes some people uncomfortable–and some of my family members may not like me calling Abuela Libby a bruja. All I’m saying is that she read tarot cards… among other things that brujas might do.
My Dad had started to learn from Abuela Libby the art of being spiritually connected in order to read tarot cards. However, my grandparents didn’t really approve of this. Witchcraft or brujería can carry negative connotations for people. Often, this understanding is less because someone doesn’t believe in it, but rather, because they do. They know that brujeria has the ability to hold and wield power. That is what this story is actually about.
My great-grandfather Chico was married to Abuela Libby. They were divorced and he remarried. After Abuelo Chico and Abuela Libby divorced, Abuelo Chico was scared of Abuela Libby. Like reading tarot cards, hexing was also among other things that brujas might do that my Abuela Libby also did… allegedly. Abuela Chico said she had put a hex on him. You know–like a curse. He never really explain the specifics around the hex but there were a lot of things he wouldn’t do because of it apparently. It must have held at least some power to him.
Abuelo Chico’s new wife, Angie, was also afraid of this hex. Angie worried about her daughter, my Dad’s Tía Cecelia. They thought Cecelia would get taken by Libby in the middle of the night. No information was provided on how or what the hex would do that would make this possible, but the potential of my Abuela Libby’s brujería was believed deeply. Angie would sleep during the day and stay up at night just to ensure the hex couldn’t be fulfilled and Cecelia wouldn’t be taken by Libby.
This hold of the hex lasted until Abuela Libby’s death, twenty two years after the birth of Tía Cecelia. The day that Abuela Libby died, Abuelo Chico said he felt a sense of relief wash over him. Like something was gone. Something had been lifted. They could now sleep.
Is Abuela Libby a good witch or a bad witch? The most correct answer to this is that Abuela Libby is my great-grandmother.
My Dad decided that they would play a follow-the-leader type game, and he convinced my Tia Betty to stand practically on top of this mound of dirt. First, he had her clap. Easy game and my Tia Betty was just happy to be included. Next, he told her to stomp.
What my Dad left out of his explanation of this game was that this mound of dirt also was home to a fire ant colony. So, when my Tia Betty started to stomp, she disturbed the now-very-angry fire ants. They stormed out of their ant colony and did not hold back their anger at her.
By the time my Tia Betty realized what was happening, she was already covered in fire ants biting every surface of her skin. Trapped in her clothes. Head to toe. Fire ants. Biting.
Around this same time my Dad realized just exactly what he had caused. But it was too late. He didn’t mean for her to be covered in fire ants. He thought just a few would come out to scare her. He didn’t anticipate that the entire ant colony would be participating in his prank.
My Abuela Dora came out when she heard my Tia Betty’s screams of pain. Thinking quickly, she grabbed her daughter and threw her in the shower to get all the ants off and soothe her bites. Needless to say, my Dad got in a lot of trouble. So much trouble, he didn’t even remember this story until years later.
Fire ants show up more than once in my family’s history though. While my dad used fire ants to try to get rid of a little sister, his Abuelo Nicholas used them to survive.
Abuelo Nicholas was originally born in Chihuahua, Mexico in 1898. When he was 17, he made the journey to El Paso, Texas. He hitchhiked and he walked, which meant that part of this journey required him to walk through the desert. My great Tia told my dad that these trips could be extremely dangerous for many reasons, one reason being the coyotes. They’d be hard to avoid if you were traveling across the desert at night without a place to stay and they could certainly attack. But Abuelo Nicholas was never attacked. Instead of using fire ants to get rid of a little sister, Abuelo Nicholas befriended the fire ants. Well, he at least had an understanding with them.
Coyotes won’t go near fire ant colonies. Apparently, Abuelo Nicholas knew this too. So at night, Abuelo Nicholas would gently lay on or very close to a fire ant colony. They wouldn’t bother him at night–at least that’s how the story goes. Then, in the morning, Abuelo Nicholas would know to wake up when a few of those fire ants would bite him awake. They could only have an understanding with each other until morning.
Throughout my family’s history, something as small as fire ants have continued to shape us. Whether by allowing my great Abuelo Nicholas to sleep on his journey to Texas or by teaching my Dad to be a little nicer to his sister, they have found a way to be in our story.
In the summer of 2020, I was making enchiladas like I often do. I went through my normal methods to prepare them which included cutting serrano peppers. I know you’re supposed to wear gloves when cutting peppers, but I’m Mexican-American. You know that stereotype about Mexican women flipping tortillas with their bare hands? It’s rooted in truth. I stir vegetables cooking on a hot pan with my fingertips. So why would I need gloves to cut peppers? Sure, I’ll wash my hands after cutting peppers, but gloves? That’s for the weak. But on this summer day in 2020, I was weaker than the serrano peppers.
While I was cooking, my hands started to burn. I had cut the serranos a few minutes prior and at first, I thought maybe my hands burned from touching the hot pan so I didn’t think much of it. Eventually though, it became unbearable and I had already washed my hands multiple times. So, I did what any normal twenty-something would do. I called my Dad.
But he didn’t know what to do either. He probably told me I should have worn gloves. Too late. He did suggest that I should probably call my Grandma Dora though. And as any good Tejana Abuela would do, she first kindly scolded me for not being more careful. Then she made it very clear that I was under no circumstances to use butter. That would make everything worse. I didn’t tell her that I had already used milk. They’re both dairy products so maybe the reason I wasn’t supposed to use butter applies to milk too. I didn’t want to risk the lecture.
Her advice was to soak my hands in water and ice. This at the very least felt good, but when I’d take my hands out of the water, they’d still burn. So it didn’t actually take away the burning completely. I tried a lot of different suggestions but various methods only made the burning less painful for a few minutes and didn’t cure my burning hands. It took over 6 hours for my hands to not need an ice bath to function. The burning didn’t stop completely until the next day.
In case you ever burn your hands with serrano peppers, here’s my review on all the various methods that my Dad, Abuela, & the internet suggested from least helpful to most helpful:
5. Vegetable oil: It did nothing and honestly my hands just felt worse after
4. Baking soda & water paste: This probably did help the most in the long run, but there was no instant relief so I struggled to actually keep it on my hands
3. Rubbing alcohol: A bit of a disclaimer. The rubbing alcohol I used had been expired for 4 years. It may have helped, but there was no instant relief
2. Milk: This was the first thing I tried so admittedly, it may have set the pepper oils in my hands and therefore could be the reason my hands burned for so long… but neither here no there, it was cold so it felt good.
1. Ice water: This felt the best. Your hands can’t hurt if they’re numb.
As it turns out, my grandma Dora misunderstood how I had burned my hands. She thought I burned them on the stove while cooking the peppers, not from cutting the peppers themselves. Despite the misunderstanding, water and ice still did work the best. So, Abuela was right. Even when Abuela’s aren’t right… they are right.
I still don’t wear gloves while cutting serranos. I think this experience helped build up my tolerance honestly. I’ll be stronger than the serrano. And if I’m not… I’ll just call my Abuela again.
In 1973, my Dad lived in a more rural area outside of El Paso, Texas. This meant some people had outhouses rather than indoor plumbing. My Dad and his friend Roberto were always told that people shouldn’t smoke when they’re near the outhouse. This was because if you smoke, it’ll make all the farts in the outhouse explode. To these early teen boys, this was enough to pique their interest.
How could farts make an outhouse explode? Was it just an old folklore like La Llorona made to scare them or would something actually happen if there was a fire near an outhouse? The best way to determine if this was fact or fiction was to try it for themselves. So, they conducted a science experiment.
Roberto made sure to eat a lot of beans the day before and that day. Around noon they were ready to test out this folklore. Roberto felt that particular rumble in his stomach, so he bent over, looking back between his legs while my Dad lit the match and held it close to Roberto’s butt. Roberto let out a big fart and sure enough, a huge flame came out. My Dad jumped back and probably would have had his eyebrows burned off if he hadn’t. Roberto and my Dad laughed harder and longer than they could have imagined.
Their science experiment was complete. Farts will, in fact, catch on fire.
Surprisingly, Roberto did not end up becoming a scientist. Instead, he became a priest.
Last names often are passed down patrilineally–through the father. My last name is Patiño because it’s my Dad’s last name. My Dad has his last name through my grandfather Manuel. My grandfather has his last name through my great grandfather Chico. My great grandfather has his last name through my great great grandfather Manuel Sr.. My great great grandfather has his last name through my great great great grandfather Louis. And my great great great grandfather has his last name through my great great great great grandmother. His mother. Not his father.
Not entirely patrilineal.
This is the story about how I have my last name because of my 4x great grandmother. We’ll call her Abuela Patiño. This story was originally told to my Dad through Grandpa Chico. Abuela Patiño was Grandpa Chico’s great grandmother. She would have been alive sometime around the 1850s. She was an Indigenous woman to the Northern Mexico & Southern Texas region. Before Texas was America’s and before it was Mexico’s, and before it was Spain’s… it was my grandmother’s.
She was a servant on a ranch for the Shepherds, a German family. We’re unsure of the actual spelling of the last name and it could have originally been Schaefer too, but it was some variation of Shepherd. I almost knew the spelling–because Shepherd was almost my last name.
As a servant, my Abuela Patiño became pregnant by the owner of the ranch–Mr. Shepherd. The situation of how consensual this was is unclear and even if was “consensual” I’m not sure how consensual it could have been when Abuela Patiño was a young Indigenous woman working for a wealthy German family in the Desert Southwest. But nevertheless, she was pregnant.
Of course, having a baby with your servant is already scandalous enough, but Mr. Shepherd was also married… and not to Abuela Patiño. Needless to say, Mrs. Shepherd was more than unhappy when she found out about the father of my Abuela Patiño’s baby.
Louis. Half Indigenous. Half German. My 3x great grandfather.
Mrs. Shepherd made sure that Louis would never be able to claim a single penny from the Shepherds. How? You don’t allow him to have the Shepherd last name. Even though Louis was a bastard child, he could still have possibly claimed some inheritance after Mr. Shepherd died if Louis held the Shepherd last name. Mr. & Mrs. Shepherd also had children together so if Louis had received any inheritance, it would have meant less for Mrs. Shepherd’s children. I’m sure Mrs. Shepherd has a lot to do with Louis not being named Louis Shepherd, but I also have to believe that my Abuela Patiño used the little agency she did have to choose differently. Choose a different name. Our name.
I don’t know how long my Abuela Patiño worked for the Shepherds after having Louis, but I do know at least one tie was broken. Louis, and the rest of my family, would be not be tied to the Shepherds in name. If I’m being honest, I’m grateful for that. Louis was named Louis Patiño. Patiño is my grandmother’s last name. My grandmother’s name.
It’s impressive enough that I know my 3x great grandfather’s name was Louis Patiño considering he was born sometime in the mid-1800s, was a bastard child, wasn’t rich, and wasn’t white. It can be difficult to trace non-white, not rich, not legally married, families that far back. But we can. I feel incredibly grateful. And I still want more. Just one step more.
I call her Abuela Patiño because I don’t know her name. She’s the reason I have the last name I do and I don’t even know her name. I want to. I want to look through all the records and archives and find her name somehow. I hope to one day be able to afford the time and money to do all of that research. I could do all that and still not find her name. It simply may not be in the records.
But that’s part of why I’m doing all this–writing down my family’s stories. A lot of it won’t be found in records. We’re just average people with family stories. Most of us are. I hope to find my Abuela Patiño’s name. And if I don’t, these stories are her name too.
Andrea is my great-grandmother. I’ve never met her, but my Dad made sure I knew who she was. She was a kind woman with dark skin and Indigenous features. She always made sure others were loved. If you came over, she’d give you something to eat. Even though she never had much, she would give you whatever she had. It may just be tortillas with butter, but she made sure you were cared for.
My middle name is Andrea after my her. I even have a sugar skull tattoo on my leg based on her. Like my Abuela Andrea, my sugar skull is missing teeth. She was a sweet, caring, small Mexican woman and also was a badass. She was tough. In both pictures I’ve included in this post, you can see her revolver. Can you find both of them?
But let’s talk about her missing teeth. One day, my dad walked into Abuela Andrea’s house when she was about 80 years old. She had cotton balls in her mouth. There were also pliers, tequila, and some bloody teeth on her kitchen table. Naturally, he asked her what happened. The answer was simple. Her teeth were hurting her. So, she took a few shots of tequila and yanked out the hurting teeth with a pair of pliers herself. To stop infection and pain, she soaked some cotton balls in more tequila and shoved them in her mouth. What? You’ve never pulled your own teeth with tequila and pliers?
Realistically, my Abuela Andrea probably didn’t go to the dentist because she didn’t have a lot of money. Dentists were (are) expensive. But that wasn’t the reason my Abuela Andrea cited as to why she was performing her own oral surgery in the kitchen at 80 years old. Like many, my Mexican Abuela had an understandable distrust of medical professionals in the United States–that distrust became evident when my dad asked why she didn’t go to the dentist to get her teeth pulled. Abuela Andrea was appalled at even the suggestion that she needed the dentist. Can’t he see based on the loose teeth on the kitchen table that she just did it herself just fine? So, she responded confidently, “dentists don’t know what they’re doing.”
I’ve grown up making tamales. Most of the time, tamales are made sometime around the winter holidays. In the past, my family has hosted big parties where we invite anyone who wants to learn to come to be a part of our traditions. It’s a fun, hands-on holiday party that gets everyone involved in not only making the food but also in experiencing our Mexican-American culture with us. One of the beautiful things about tamales is that rarely do two different people make them the same way let alone two different families. Each family will have different tips and tricks to make their tamales taste like home.
When making tamales, my family has two big rules that must be followed with us:
1. If you don’t help make tamales, you don’t help eat tamales
2. Do not let the tamales get lonely.
I’ve included a general recipe here which is how my family makes tamales, but again–there are many ways. One look and you’ll see that tamales are not something you just make on a whim. That’s where rule number 1 comes in: if you don’t help make tamales, you don’t help eat tamales. You need a lot of preparation and a lot of time. So everyone needs to help. Luckily, there’s a lot of jobs to be done when making tamales. So even if you aren’t the best at wrapping the tamales, maybe you’re a really good dishwasher or make the best margaritas. We all have our talents. Everyone doesn’t have to do everything, but everyone must do something.
The second rule is more important than the first because it’s a tradition from my great-grandma, Andrea. When things are ancestral traditions, they hold power. It’s not because they are more important or significant than non-ancestral traditions, but it’s because when you participate in ancestral traditions, your ancestors are participating with you. I find comfort in knowing I’m doing something that my great-grandma Andrea also did. And my Abuelita never let the tamales get lonely. It’s tradition.
My dad has told me about when grandma Andrea would make tamales she would set herself up in the kitchen before she’d put the tamales to steam. She made sure to go to the bathroom beforehand, brought in a chair, and made sure she had one of her novelas to read. But why? Her reasoning is solid. Once the tamales are in the steamer. You cannot leave the kitchen. If you leave the kitchen, you’ll be leaving the tamales alone. If you leave the tamales alone, they will become lonely (obviously). I mean, you just spend all day making them and in their last minutes, you’re just going to abandon them? Everyone knows that a lonely tamale is a sad tamale and a sad tamale simply will not taste good. Keep them company. Stay in the kitchen.
So if you have to leave the kitchen, you better tag someone else in. We just spent all day making tamales. I’m not taking any risks. Luckily, making tamales is often a community event. Have a party! Then there will always be plenty of people to help keep the tamales company.
Let me know if you want an invite to our next tamale party. But remember, you must help make tamales if you want to help eat tamales.
Each family has different ways to make tamales. While my family is Mexican-American, even different Mexican-Americans will make tamales differently. There isn’t necessarily a “right” way to do it–just different ways. This is the base recipe my family uses, but if you use a different way, I’m sure it’s fine! The most important thing is that the tamales taste good to you.
– Corn Husks
– Fillings (whatever you want, veggies, meat, cheese, etc.)
– Corn Masa
– Whatever the corn masa bag tells you you need (a lot of vegetable oil, salt, water, etc.)
– Patience & time
– Family members and/or friends
1. Soak the corn husks for at least two hours. You’ll need to separate them individually when putting them in the water and only use bigger ones. If they’re too small, you can’t use them well. Save those small ones for the “ties” though. It’s best to get a big bowl or we often use those big disposable aluminum containers. Put plates or a pot lid on top of the husks to hold them down in the water. Soak for at least 2 hours. Longer is fine. When they’re ready, take them out & let them dry a bit, but only so water isn’t dripping off of them. You just want to make sure they’re still flexible when you start putting the masa on them. While these are soaking, you can be making the masa/fillings.
2. Make the fillings. I personally like cooked spicy peppers with cheese, but those who eat meat will typically use shredded meat. Really, whatever you want is fine. Different families have different traditions about what goes inside. Whatever you’re putting inside, now is a good time to cook it while the corn husks are soaking.
3. Make the masa. If you just buy corn masa, there will be instructions on the back. Add water/masa to get a good consistency. It should be a bit moister than like bread dough, but it shouldn’t really stick to your fingers. You’re welcome to make the masa completely from scratch… but you’ll need to find another recipe for that.
4. Flatten masa on the corn husk. Leave space at the bottom so you can wrap them up still. You’ll want it pretty thin or the tamale will be all masa.
5. Put your filling in. Put it on top of the masa that you had spread out on the corn husk. You want it to close, but again, don’t want too much corn masa. This part may take some practice. At the end of the day though, even just okay tamales are still pretty good
6. Wrap. You’ll kinda want to “connect” the two sides of the masa so when you unwrap the tamale later, it stays together (like a burrito). If you’re making different types of tamales, make sure you find a way to indicate which is which. Ex: We normally only put the corn husk “tie” around veggie ones and leave meat ones without a tie.
7. Steam for about two hours. Tamales go in the steamer with the open part standing up. If you put them on their side, you’ll be sad when everything falls apart. You can put wet rags/cloth in the side if you don’t have enough for a full batch. Also, it’s best to get a wet rag/cloth and lay it over top (helps them steam better) and THEN put the lid on. But, this next part is probably the most important part. You steam them for about two hours. SOMEONE MUST BE IN THE KITCHEN THE ENTIRE TIME. Bring a book, hang out, drink some beer. I don’t care. But you must NEVER leave the Tamales alone during ANY part of this process. Read here why. If you’re making multiple batches, this is still true.
8. Check the Tamales. After about two hours, take one out & let it cool for a minute or two. Taste it & see if they’re cooked all the way. Generally, you know it’s ready if it rolls easily out of the husk and isn’t “doughy” anymore. This isn’t an exact science though. So, they sometimes need more time. There’s about a 30-45 minute margin of error. It’s more likely that they will be undercooked than overcooked by accident.
9. Enjoy! Tip: If someone you’re making tamales with has never had tamales, they get to eat the first tamale–pretend it’s tradition. See if they make the same rookie mistake as President Gerald Ford (you don’t eat the corn husk–you unwrap it). Tamales freeze really well too. As you can see, they can be a lot of work. So, make a bunch & freeze them. There’s a reason we typically only do this once a year.
What more visuals? Here’s a video I found that does a pretty good job explaining the process! Of course, you don’t need to use beef but it’s just one example and her channel has other examples too.
Guillermo Zapien is my 3x great-grandfather. Apparently, he used to run with Pancho Villa. For those of you who missed the lesson in history class about the Mexican Revolution (probably because it wasn’t taught), the oversimplified version is that the war was from 1910-1920 and it created a new government. Pancho Villa was a Mexican revolutionary, bandit, and guerrilla leader who fought against oppressive governments and advocated for those in poverty, especially during the Revolution. He had many friends and many enemies and like most people in history, he was a flawed human. While he died a wealthy man, he died with a little bit less wealth than he wanted because of Guillermo.
Guillermo worked for Pancho Villa and was supposed to hide gold for Pancho Villa. So Guillermo did. He then drew a map to the money and was supposed to give that map to Pancho Villa. But Guillermo knew better—or at least was told better. If he gave that map to Pancho Villa, Guillermo would have been killed right after to ensure that only Pancho Villa knew where the money was hidden. Instead of telling where the money was, Guillermo ran. He made it over the border and into El Paso, Texas but not before being shot in his grand escape.
He lived to tell the tale. This tale would be told over and over to his grandson, my great grandfather Chico. Guillermo told Chico that one day, they’d travel to the mountains in Juárez to find that gold. Guillermo still knew where it was. Guillermo died before ever taking Chico to find their gold. It may still be sitting there, waiting for someone to find it.
As always, I have no idea if this story is true with a capital T. What I do know is that this is the story that has been passed down. The stories families tell about themselves sometimes will reveal more about the family regardless of the truth. Don’t get too caught up in the story, get caught up in what your ancestors are trying to tell you.
And if you’re related to Pancho Villa and you’ve read this… no you didn’t.
When I was little, my dad would tell me bedtime stories. I thought I’d share one of my favorites with you today. This story is a cautionary tale. You may have heard of La Llorona but have you heard about the boy who started turning into a frog?
Once upon a time, there was a little boy who used to play with frogs. He would go across the street and play with the frogs almost every day. He’d even bring them home. Well, his mom didn’t like this very much and told him not to play with the frogs. But the boy didn’t listen. So his mother told him, “mijo, if you’re not careful you’ll turn into a frog. And you’ll have to eat flies and bugs.” The boy still didn’t listen.
The boy noticed that the side of his mouth was starting to turn brown and green. The brown and green started spreading to his cheek. It started to scab and look scaly. Like a frog. The boy started to imagine turning into a frog. A huge frog! A frog that had to eat bugs and live in a pond. He didn’t want to face his mother who had warned him so he tried to hide it. But his frogness started to spread and eventually, his mom saw the frog skin.
The boy’s mother took him to the doctor. At the doctor’s, the boy was very worried. He cried to his mother “I don’t want to be a frog! I don’t want to eat bugs or turn green! I don’t want to have to live in a pond! ” To which his mother responded “See! I told you to stay away from the frogs!”
The boy in this story is my dad and the mom is my grandmother. My dad probably just had an infection. He was given medicine by the doctor that cleared it up. But he stopped playing with frogs and remembered to listen to his mother at least a little bit more next time