Discovering Chicano Identity Through Tortillas de Harina

I spent years trying to recreate my abuela’s tortilla recipe. Here’s what I found when I succeeded.

Tortilla Dough
Photo: Courtesy of John Paul Brammer

Eyeballing it was the important part, I thought. Any pendejo could look up the recipe for flour tortillas. Flour, water, lard, salt, baking powder; these things together will make tortillas just fine. But they will not make Abuela’s tortillas unless they are tossed into a bowl with the careless confidence of a cartoon witch making a potion. Measuring them out diminishes them, I thought; it makes them science.

I was not alone in thinking there was something special about these tortillas. As kids, my sister and I would gift them, still hot, steam clouding the Ziploc bag, to our teachers who would immediately recognize them for what they were and say things like, “It’s my lucky day!” Salty and soft, they melted in the mouth a little. If such tortillas could be easily duplicated with cups and teaspoons, then everyone would do so and they would be everywhere.

This line of thinking led me to several stacks of pale, slick disks that begged for death.

“We are so salty,” some said. “Please kill us.” Others: “We are much too fat. Throw us in the garbage immediately.” I would occasionally ask Abuela to teach me between these failures. She would say she would, and then she wouldn’t.

I was in high school. Abuela (short, brown, vindictive) was still alive. She was perplexed with my sudden urge to learn how to make her tortillas. It took me a while, I might have told her, to figure out that not every family in Oklahoma had homemade tortillas, and that I had been wrong to consider them boring, and that I now recognized they were the last things in our family that made us Mexican at all. I didn’t tell her this. She would have laughed at me.

“I’ll just make some,” she’d say whenever I’d ask her to help me, as if what I wanted was the tortillas and not the knowledge. Sometimes at six in the morning, when I’d wake up to go to school across town where my mother taught English, I’d hear Abuela humming, finishing up a fresh batch, yelling at Chummy—her husband, Abuelo—to flip the tortilla on the fire for her.

Abuela’s sporadic acts of love were like this: withholding. She did the same thing with Spanish. She’d dropped out of the fourth grade because she couldn’t speak English, and so she didn’t teach her children Spanish. Because she loved them, I think. She would speak it sometimes—to Chummy, to other Mexicans, but not to us.

Was I ashamed of her? I don’t know. She walked me to my first day of middle school in the town where she lived, potholed and neglected. I went to school here before my mom transferred me to the high school where she worked. Abuela held my hand as we walked. I remember, because she never held my hand and I was confused. “Was that your nanny?” kids were asking me all day. “Are you a rich boy?”

My mom had grown up and gone to school there, too. This was where she had been voted “most likely to run a taco stand” by her peers. Our food is a big deal both for Mexicans and for people who hate Mexicans. It is: cheap, delicious, unhealthy, and eminently mockable for its alleged simplicity, for being just different combinations of cheese and beans and rice, or so I’ve been told. Sometimes people mispronounce the names for fun. Jalapeño becomes jah-lap-ino. Kay-suh-dilla.

John Paul Brammer

Sometimes Abuela would laugh at me. When I took a job at the local tortilla factory during my senior year of high school because I wanted to learn how to be Mexican, how to make our food and speak our language, she told me, “Shoot for the moon, mijo.” She cracked herself up with that. She liked to remind me that I was homesick for a place I’d never actually been.

At the tortilla factory, I diced up chunky, mediocre salsa. I made people tacos and sprinkled cheese on top. I would remove my headset, call back to the kitchen in Spanish, and resume speaking to the customers in English who sometimes didn’t react, but sometimes were surprised or irritated. I courted such reactions because I was angry and wanted to punish someone, anyone, for taking Spanish from me in the first place.

In the mornings, at the factory, I would make tortillas. But they didn’t bring me any closer to Abuela’s tortillas because they came out of a machine. I would feed the machine the ingredients, and the tortillas would emerge from a conveyor belt all puffed up and white. They tasted fine. I would bring some home and say I made them, which was basically a lie.

As important as the ingredients to Abuela’s tortillas were her tools. She had a hunk of wood that we joked was the foot of the True Cross, the actual one Jesus had been nailed to, because it looked so old and had produced so many miracles. She had a wooden roller that also looked like it belonged in a museum. I didn’t dare use these artifacts and wouldn’t, I told myself, until I knew what I was doing. Otherwise, such sacrilege would have been like drinking Gatorade out of the Holy Grail.

The first time my tortillas puffed up like balloons, I was in college. I had disposed of the myth that I needed to make them exactly as she had, without measuring anything. Everything in the world was just a series of exact steps, I thought. Everything was math. I consulted three sources: a Reddit forum where internet strangers helped me with the ingredients, a white woman’s recipe blog in which she admitted she would sometimes eat them with hot dogs and Cheez Whiz, and a Mexican woman’s shaky YouTube video.

“Look!” I exclaimed from the kitchen. “Abuela, look!” She got up off the couch, shuffled over, and sucked her teeth. She observed the perfect, round tortilla. “OK,” she said.

She left me the tortilla set, the wood board, and the roller, when she died. I was living in New York at the time. The day before her funeral, I made tortillas with it at home and left it on the counter. I woke up to find that my mother had put it in the dishwasher, warping the wood. In my dress shoes and shirt, I cried, begged my dad to fix it, cursed, and stormed around. This was the one thing she’d left me, the one thing I’d earned, and I hadn’t been watchful enough of it.

Flour tortillas aren’t even the “authentic” Mexican tortillas. In most of Mexico, corn tortillas rule the day. I didn’t know that because in my mind the realms of “fake” and “authentic” were clearly delineated by the border, where everything south was real and everything north was fake. Borders are psychological. “Flour?” a local once asked me at a house party in Mexico City, where I was visiting. “Why?”

I think we Chicanos inherit a “Why?” We hold it, play with it, throw it across the room, and occasionally we attempt to answer it. Why bother to look back? Why try to reclaim things you never really had, things your family found so cumbersome they had to cut them loose?

It was Abuela’s carelessness of movement while making tortillas that I wanted, the not trying, the unimpeachable self-knowledge that lives in the body, in the muscles. It was the kind of carelessness that can only be achieved from making something over and over and over again because your mother shouted at you to make them. Measurements will get the job done, but they’re just facts. You can hold a lot of facts and still not really know anything.

The water you pour into your tortillas de harina should be hot—so hot that it’s nearly boiling. Pour it over the lard and work the dough with your hands. It might burn a little.

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