Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Mexican Traditions, Language Fight for Survival in Alabama

Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Mexican Traditions, Language Fight for Survival in Alabama

Article excerpt

Don Memo took me to the site of his baked cow skull. Behind his old, simple house he ha dug a 4-foot-deep and 2-foot-wide pozo, or well. After filling it with lumber, he set it afire. While flames licked out of the earth, Don Memo washed the fresh cow head in his sink.

"Sometimes I just get a hankering for cow brains," he said to me in Spanish. My wife, Michelle, watched from one side of the kitchen as Memo cleaned the head. "Ay, Marcos, I'm going to get your bolilla (white woman) to eat a little bit of brain tacos today. Come now, Michelle, see how clean this head is? Better than eating the rear end, you know."

Michelle appeared persuaded, until she heard a clink against the metal sink. "Oops," said Memo, "there goes a tooth."

Baking cow brains is a liturgy unto itself. The wood burned for 12 hours, drying out the earth around the pozo. Memo placed more wood into the hole, then set large stones on top. The next morning he wrapped the skull in aluminum foil and placed it nose down atop the stones. He covered the hole tight with a sheet of galvanized metal. Twelve hours later the brains would meet a tortilla and hot sauce.

Memo placed a couple of chickens and two cow tongues around the head. He was obviously excited. I asked why so much work, if there was a special occassion. "Oh, it's the weekend. And it's beautiful weather today. You never know if someone is going to visit."

I looked around at our north Alabama hills. I had to agree with him. Such a weekend was made for a gathering of friends.

Though living here most of her life, Memo's wife, Jovita, rarely speaks English. She prepared the rest of the meal. "Ay, que alegre es tener gente aqui. Esta trieste una casa callada." (Oh, it's great to have folks around. A silent house is a sad one.)

Memo and Jovita have lived in Alabama for about five years. The three decades previous to that they lived in many parts of the United States, two of the thousands of working immigrants. Memo doesn't mind telling stories from those years. "We were migrants from 1954 until the 1980s. I used to leave eight of my children in a park and take my wife and the two youngest children to someone's farmhouse. I knew they would reject us if they saw my whole family. Later, we would sneak the other eight into the barn."

Knowing that life has changed little for migrants, Memo and Jovita offer a bit of tradition to their own. The cow head and other meats cooked all day. Most assuredly folks would come around this evening to enjoy some real Mexican food.

Joel, one of Memo's children, came out and greeted me. He is a stout, strong 15-year-old. He wore a T-shirt with an elaborate painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe across the front. His baseball cap, turned backward, had La Raza (literally "the ancestry") embroidered in red, white and green. We greeted with the usual handshake, three movements that end with our fists popping against each other. Over the years, the hand-shake has become smooth, ritualistic, a dance of friendship.

Behind Joel stood an old Ford LTD, with a stereo speaker the size of a small filing cabinet vibrating the trunk. Joel and his older brothers flipped through various cassettes. One minute it was Banda Macho, the next Arrested Development. Joel moved along with both. Bilingual, he sang along, missing no beat:

Gracias a Dios que es mi padre, y que say indio como el. Walked the roads my forefathers walked, climbed the trees my forefathers hung from.

There have been tense moments in his young life. Joel has heard "stupid Mexican," "wetback" and "lazy spic" whispered behind him in school. He is known as a "good kid," which I suppose means, to some, a boy who doesn't start trouble no matter how much he's harassed.

But get Joel to listen to music or play his conga drum or talk about someone insulting his mother, and the good kid's eyes burn with a certain anger. …

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