Memory: My Bisa Tias and East Los

Thursday, December 17, 2020

 It was a cool afternoon in Southern California, which means it was in the upper 70's and the sun was shining brightly. Fluffy white clouds were lazily lounging in the sky, as the cool breeze rattled the backyard tchotchkes. Succulents dangled from the late-blooming jacaranda tree as I sat recalling all of the moments.

My first memories of this place, the elders sat in the fold out chairs, gathered around long 6-foot outdoor tables. They were made of metal in the 80s and my familia covered the tops of those tables with floral contact paper, then a vinyl tablecloth, adorned with doilies that presented various manteca and butter containers with varying degrees of salsa and other spicy relishes. Each of the tias would show up with large platters of their specialty comida: jalapeno poppers adorned with pickled carrots, chiles rellenos, tamales, or puffy tacos---prominently diaplayed with their own aluminum or mesh tent to ward off the moscas. And you can't forget about the fresh warm and crisp tortillas, masterfully singed around the edges, resting inside of a hand embroidered tortilla warmer, essentially a dish towel with a brightly colored blanket stitch along the border. Inside on the stove was a pot of bubbling frijoles and an even bigger pot of arroz. Earlier in the day, my two youngest bisa-tias went through each grain of rice, checking for color and inconsistencies. If it passed inspection, then it was put into the mug. If not, then it was placed in the discard bowl.

In that brightly lit kitchen, they sat across from one another at the avocado green formica table, each wearing a floral delantal with a dainty lace pocket in the shape of a heart on the right side of that cloth apron. The quiet tia carried around a golf pencil and a small notebook in that pocket. The boisterous bisa-tia talked endlessly about her novelas, her work, her marido, anything really, while the quiet bisa-tia would occasionally issue a delicate vocable and nod. Both focused in her own way at the task at hand. And once their mugs were full, they would rinse the rice, lightly saute it with oil, then add it to the already seared onion, garlic, and tomato. On low heat, it would cook until it was time to be served.

La gente would arrive and dar saludos a todos, then settle in at their respective chairs in the backyard patio under the blue shaded tarp. All of the adults had their favorite seats around the gathering table. A mish mash of both metal and folding chairs, some of the chairs at least half a century old. 

The expansive yard housed many types of trees and other vegetation. A visual and olfactory playground for a curious child. Strawberries, Lemon trees, tomatoes, as well as a variety of hierbas like laureles, tomillo, and sabia. These herbs were difficult to find as an adult because I didn't know the English words and it took some time for me to locate a Mexican market to fill my pantry. 

These things would become part of the sacred language that only emerged from others who I'd known from that time. The vocabulary dormant until I was physically placed in that area. Words I spoke as an adult, understanding the mis-pronunciation because the last time the phrases were uttered I was a small child, nestled next to the hip of my bisa-tias. I was a quiet child, conservative with my trust, but when I felt a connection, it was often difficult to wrestle me away. God Bless my tias for their patience with me and for teaching me so many things that I would later learn served to strengthen the foundation for the rest of my life. 

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