Western Road Trip
Destination: Southern New Mexico and El Paso, Texas
Here at A Traveler’s Library, we seem to be talking a lot about books that tell lives and culture through food. Recently I reviewed the beautiful White Truffles in Winter about the life of Escoffier, and then Day of Honey, with life in the Middle East during war, and there are all the cookbooks that Brette Sember brings us on Tasty Thursday and Jessie Voigts evocation of France through food centric books. And author Denise Chávez makes a statement that points out WHY we wind up talking about food in relation to travel. She says,
By understanding a people’s food you can understand their culture and what they believe in.
When I saw Denise Chávez at the Tucson Book Festival last weekend, I told her that the reason I liked A Taco Testimony so much was that it was full of surprises. I’m sure there are people who approach the book with expectations that are not met–it is not a Mexican cook book (although there are some recipes), and it is not a homey “mama’s comida” book. Chávez goes to great lengths to disabuse the reader of the wrong expectations, right from the start.
This is not a sweet little book about tacos; it remembers the fights that began at the kitchen table, spilled into the dining room, then moved quickly into the living room and continued into the bedroom with the sudden slam of a door that led to the hushed sound of someone crying behind the door.
A “sweet little book” it is not. But because Chávez writes poetry and writes for the theater, she presents us with family drama and even the narrative frequently reads like poetry. The structure reflects a poet’s love of circular paths and repetition. And while some of the family drama may be painful to read about, there is nothing gratuitous about the pain. Every word and every scene brings us closer to understanding the culture of the Mexican/Mexian-American/Chicana/Chicano people who live in west Texas and southern New Mexico.
Since I live in southern Arizona, it fascinates me to see that the two areas have spawned attitudes that sometimes differ markedly. The taco can serve as a metaphor for ties that bind and regional differences. Chávez tries to be tolerant of the folded taco (common in Sonora and therefore in southern Arizona), but “real” tacos for her are rolled. And tortillas, Aieee!, she insists that they must be of corn and must have some heft. Here in Sonoran Mexico/America the pride of tortillas–the very best–are wheat and rolled so thin you can read the menu through them. (See Jim Griffiths book, A Border Runs Through It to find out WHY Sonoran tortillas are wheat.)
I am not going to spend my limited time contrasting Southern Arizona and Southern New Mexico, but I did want you to know as you plan your road trip that “seen one, seen ’em all” does not apply. Chavez makes the same point about the difference between her mother’s west Texas family where
…you venerated your Mother Culture more, while to be a Mexicano in southern New Mexico, my Father’s family, at least, that he and his clan moved away from their native roots.
Being cultured, she points out, in the sense of being educated and appreciating the arts for instance, has nothing to do with whether you are rich or poor. A Taco Testimony is a plea to understand the culture you were born into or the culture of the area where you live. She is appalled that someone living in her town of Las Cruces, New Mexico does not know that the pads of the prickly pear–nopales– are edible. She believes that we would have fewer wars if we were not “afraid of differences in language, food, customs and ways of living.”
So A Taco Testimony, does have recipes, and it is a memoir of a specific family living in southern New Mexico, but the author’s probing mind wanders far beyond Las Cruces and the nearby El Paso. I would recommend this book to any travelers who wants to ponder the importance of culture and appreciation of differences, but particularly to a traveler with a road trip through New Mexico in mind. Northern New Mexico has the American Indian culture, the stylish shops of Santa Fe, the mountains and beautiful scenery. Southern New Mexico demands a more attentive traveler to find its appeal. A flat land dotted with dusty struggling towns, you may be tempted to rush through and write it off. I hope that Chávez might change your mind.
By the way, if you plan to be in southern New Mexico in April, check out the charming town of Mesilla, where Chávez heads a book festival. Take a look at this fascinating book festival in a small New Mexican town.