by Claudia Harding
We landed in Mérida, Mexico, on a muggy October evening, almost a week before Día de los Muertos (known locally as Hanal Pixan) and just months after we’d lost my father. Over the summer, I’d struggled with the feelings of crushing loss and disconnection, and I hoped this trip would bring me closer to him. I’m a second-generation Mexican, born and raised on the Texas-Mexico border, which means that I grew up in two worlds—an experience that also informs my work as food access manager at Sustainable Food Center. Many of the first- and second-generation families I work with are also straddling two worlds as they hold on to their identity from the old country and adapt to the new. I’ve learned much from them over the years—most important, that our cultural roots can be a source of comfort when we’re navigating new paths in life.
At dinner that first evening, I soaked up my surroundings: the mother and father nearby with their children, the character and atmosphere of the place, the food and music. I saw my father in so much around me—his generosity of spirit and love of life and good food—and the memories began to trickle in.
Growing up, my weekdays were spent just like any other kid: going to school, hanging out with friends and watching television. On the weekends, though, we crossed el puente (the bridge) to visit family, eat out and gather groceries. My mother swears that certain foods just taste better in Mexico—purer, with brighter, cleaner flavors—and my memories of being there always involve family and food. There were the small sweet guayabas (guava fruit) that we ate as soon as the fruterías (fruit stands) started carrying them, and on hot sunny days, we’d visit the paletería (ice cream parlor) for mango licuados (smoothies) or a fruity paleta (ice pop)—or even both because my dad always spoiled me. Sometimes we’d have lunch at the Hotel Alaska, and I’d order the Milanesa—pounded thin and fried crisp—with fries and a big Coca-Cola. These memories came rushing back as I sat in a restaurant almost 2,000 miles from home.
The rest of our trip was spent visiting Mayan ruins and nearby towns and wandering aimlessly and blissfully through the displays of silvery fish, mountains of dragon fruit, fragrant chiles and moles and just-rolled and fire-kissed tortillas at the technicolor Mercado Lucas de Galvez in downtown Mérida. There was the familiar pan dulce (sweet buns) and tender, achiote-tinged pork tacos al pastor, but also new dishes, such as quesadillas with huitlacoche (a savory, deliciously musty corn fungus) and papadzules (corn tortillas filled with hard-boiled eggs and topped with a sauce made of pepitas and tomato).
In the end, this is what our trip was made of—the familiar and the new, the food and the culture of a place that, at times, reminded me of home, but was also new and different from the memories of my childhood. It was all beautiful, exotic and delicious, and it provided more than just the nourishment my body needed—it fed my memories and created new ones that brought healing. And I brought home renewed compassion and understanding for the people I connect with every day at work, who may be navigating new communities and are hungry for home, yet are willing to create new connections through food.