"Life is a foreign language: all men mispronounce it."--Christopher Morley
As I sit here writing it is the end of 1998, almost the new year. I am upstairs in our house in a suburb of Chandler, which itself is a suburb of Phoenix. Chandler, when I was growing up, was a thriving small town, far away from Phoenix and in our athletic conference. It was a cotton town, agriculture and farming, and there was a fighter jet from WWII in the city square. But it's different now.
Downstairs, my wife, Lupita, my son, Joaquin, and my mother-in-law, Refugio are all busy making tamales together. I can smell the meat, which was cooked last night and whose smell has filled the house. I hear them talking, and laughing. I go downstairs to take a picture. Refugio has made the masa. She chooses the cornhusk leaves from the largest ones I have been able to find from the many packages we have emptied into the sink and have let soak. They soften in the water and don't crack when you open them. She puts the masa on the big leaves, and uses smaller ones to fill in. Joaquin adds the right amount of meat, and hears every opinion about how much that should be. Lupita finishes the assembly line, adding the olives, jalapeņo strips, and raisins. Then she folds each tamal over on its end and begins the stacking. I fit a dozen at a time into a plastic bag--five and five with two in the seams between the two rows--and start lying them flat in our freezer. This goes on all morning and into the afternoon, and we count only by dozens. There is masa everywhere by now, even on the dog Kino's nose, whose job up to now has been to slurp up all the raisins that have fallen on the floor. The masa has a gritty texture, the ground nixtamal corn giving it substance.
My wife keeps saying she's wearing her "beautiful tamal dress," and that we should not splatter anything on it. What she means is that she wore this ratty house dress last year to make tamales--it's been many years of making tamales, all her life--and it took a year of washings to get the red chile stains out. By now the Mexican songs are winning out. Vicki Carr is the last of the five CDs, and Joaquin is getting all the love songs explained to him. "But is it a metaphor?" he asks. Sheesh. Kids.
My mother, Agnes, is coming up from Nogales tomorrow. She was here for Christmas as well. It's a sunny day outside, Arizona in December--at least in the 70s. There's a bad-air alert for the metropolitan area today, too much fireplace ash, diesel fuel, and dust in the air, all with no wind. It's in the newspaper and on the news. Don't drive, carpool, stay indoors. You can see a slow thickness in the air, but the irony is that all this junk makes a spectacular sunset. "Sunset," of course, may be the more operative metaphor here. How much more a huge neon sign in the firmament do we need? Phoenix, however, is planning to apply for "clean air" status anyway. As I go outside to throw some trash, my neighbor says, "Looks like California."
What I'm saying here is that Chicano studies aren't studies at all, not the kind of studies that lift themselves from the pages of books. This is about a life lived. It's about the heat of a December day, the smell of tamales and bad air, the sound of the guitarra and television commercial at the same time, and laughter and shouting, the taste of lukewarm coffee in the passing of this day. Too much noise, too much noise someone says, and the television gets turned off. On the stereo the CDs are clearer now. We use the "random" feature to move between CDs, but the changes move us farther than that. We moved between time and cultures and emotions. It's the Trio Los Panchos, which my mother-in-law loves, and Gloria Estefan, who, even though she's Cuban, seems okay in this crowd, and Alberta Hunter, a household favorite, singing her blues and talking about her "handy man." My wife and I laugh. My mother-in-law doesn't speak enough English to get anything, but my son is just old enough, thirteen now, to smile because he can't help it. The Beatles White Album, the "good" one of the two CDs, and something else I haven't heard yet.
Then we're done! We're done! A freezer full of tamales and a kitchen that looks like something has exploded in it. I guess we're not done until we clean up. There are red marks on the wall from the chile in the meat occasionally splattering over the side of the big olla that holds it all. There's also telltale red on my son's lips--he's been sneaking tastes of the meat thinking nobody would notice. Masa, meat juice, cornhusk shreds and brown silks, dirty pans and dishes: clean, clean clean.
And then we are done. We're going to the movies this afternoon, but before we go we'll have some burros made out of the leftover tamal meat. The television comes back on, the morning paper is spread around on the couches. It's afternoon after work, this kind of good work. It is this work that language needs to remember, and that books need to keep. The next century will look very different, I suspect. But much as well will survive.