Last Thursday morning, my friend Cipriano boarded a flight from Tijuana to Oaxaca to reunite with his wife, children, and fourteen grandchildren that he had not seen in more than four years. A few days ago, a co-worker took him to a salon where he had his salt-and-pepper hair died a ridiculously artificial black to hide the fact that he has aged. He spent all his free time this week at Target and Walmart, buying presents for his eagerly awaiting family.
We have worked together for almost two years and I will miss his small, hunched up form scurrying around, pushing the crates of glasses, and bringing the piles of green, yellow, and maroon Fiesta plates from his immaculately clean dish washing area. He appeared every morning at least half an hour early, greeting everybody with a wide smile that made his mustache shift upwards. He worked without complaining, endured the incessant teasing of the Mexican cooks and waiters, accepting their jokes with giggles, and trying to reciprocate the best he could. He claimed to be fifty two, but the wrinkles on his face revealed a more advanced age.
The only words in English el viejito has learned to pronounce are “thank you”, “hello”, and “break”. When I met him, my Spanish consisted of Adios, Hola! and una cerveza mas fina. I could sing a few lines from Besame Mucho and Un Año De Amor from Pedro Almodovar’s movie High Heels, but we really could not communicate. Using my Italian to try to break the language barrier, I asked Cipriano if he would teach me Spanish. He agreed enthusiastically, and from that moment on, my days at work were filled with phrases and sentences that he would pronounce in his toothless Spanish, gesticulating and using charades to make me comprehend their meaning. I would come home and pore through books or consult the Internet to get the grammatically correct forms, and go back to work to put to use what he had taught me.
With a forlorn look in his dark beady eyes, he told me of his village nestled in the hills a few hours outside of Oaxaca. He told me of his wife who tends to their goats, pigs, cows, and chickens. He told me how he missed the burro that he rode every day to and from the village center, as they did not own a horse, nor a car. He smiled every time when he remembered his wife’s homemade comidita, the small corn tortillas filled with roasted pork, some frijoles and arroz served with a Coronita or two. Talking about the people he loved and the land he left behind, he resorted to diminutives, making everything closer, more endearing, and childlike.
He walked home up the hill after his shift, just to change his uniform and walk down the hill to his night time job. More dishes to wash, more tables to clean, more cooks and waiters to tease him about missing his wife. He greeted every day with a glint in his eyes, grateful for any small thing that made his day better, perennially happy and eager to joke and accept jokes, no matter how cruel. He worked six and seven days a week for more than four years, day and night, walking along the paved sidewalks of Southern California and dreaming of a distant village somewhere in Mexico where calves are born, and chickens are slaughtered, and cows are milked, and his wife is making small, sweet corn tortillas and maybe thinking of him.
On his last day at work, I brought my camera and I took pictures of Cipriano with all the employees: waiters and cooks, managers and busboys, hostesses and prep guys. In each photo, he stood erect, trying to appear taller, his face sporting his usual wide smile even though a cook couldn’t resist the juvenile antic of holding his fingers behind Cipriano’s head like donkey ears. I printed the pictures and gave them to him to take home, to have at least a few faces by which to remember the four arduous years he spent in the US, trying to make as much money as he could so that he can help his family.
He made me promise to visit him and his wife if I ever make it to Oaxaca, and I agreed. I wrote down the name of his village and all the families related to him that would know where to find him. I showed him the piece of paper with names in Spanish and he averted his eyes, smiling, saying bien, bien. In that instant I knew that mi amigo viejito did not know how to read nor write, and my heart ached for him. If I had known, I could have taught him a little every day, just like he taught me Spanish.
The last time I saw him, he came to pick up his paycheck wearing a freshly ironed plaid shirt and a baseball hat. I gave him all the tips I made that day and told him to buy something nice for his wife and a lot of chocolates for his fourteen nietos. He gave me a hug and we both fought tears as we made our usual jokes. I left, waving to him, saying Vaya con Dios, mi amigo Cipriano! I wish you good winds… And just like that, there was one less smile in my world. But I smiled wider because there would be so many more smiles in his than he had known in too many years.
I hope that he has arrived safely. I imagine the whole village of San Bartolo Salinas has gathered to listen to his high tales while he is sipping mezcal and munching salsita. I wish that he finds his peace in the green hills of Oaxaca he missed so much, riding his loyal burro to the center of the village, sitting straight and smiling. And I hope that, at least once or twice, he thinks of his friends on the other side of the border that will remember him for a long time, hoping his smile is even wider for being home.
I was thinking of a recipe that would transport me to Cipriano’s Oaxaca and I knew I had a winner when I started collecting the ingredients for chicken tortilla soup. This is a perfect dish to mark a reunion of husband and wife. It is rich and flavorful, carrying many layers and bringing forth just enough spice to make your heart skip a beat. I don’t know what dish his mujer made to welcome him home, but I fancied that she served him a bowl of this wonderful soup and that his smile was as wide as mine at the thought that my friend is home.
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 medium yellow onion, chopped
- 1 poblano pepper (or ½ sweet red pepper), chopped
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 tablespoon paprika
- 2 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon ground coriander
- 1 teaspoon chili powder
- 1 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano
- 1 quart chicken stock
- 1 chipotle chile in adobo, chopped (optional, if you don’t like spicy food)
- 1 28-oz can fire-roasted diced tomatoes, including liquid
- ½ cup water
- 1 can beans, rinsed and drained (I use whatever beans I have in the pantry)
- 1 cup corn kernels (fresh or frozen)
- 3 tomatillos, chopped (optional)
- 1 cup shredded or diced leftover roasted or baked chicken*
- juice of two small limes
- ¼ cup cilantro, chopped
- 2-3 corn tortillas
- oil for frying
- *If you don’t want to use leftover chicken, you can start from scratch, which will add
- 7-8 minutes to your cooking time. Season one boneless chicken breast (or two boneless thighs) with salt, pepper, chili powder, and ground cumin, and sauté it
- before you sauté the onions. When browned on both sides, remove from the pan
- and let it cool off. Continue with the recipe.
- Optional for Serving:
- 1 avocado, sliced
- handful cilantro, chopped
- queso fresco (if unavailable, use mild feta or jack cheese)
- lime wedges
- Heat the oil in a heavy soup pot on medium heat.
- Add onions and pepper, and sauté until translucent.
- Add garlic, paprika, cumin, coriander, chili powder and oregano.
- Stir and saute until fragrant, about one minute.
- Add stock, chipotles, tomatoes, water and beans.
- Simmer ten minutes to allow the flavors to come together.
- Add corn, tomatillos, chicken and lime juice; simmer an additional 15 minutes.
- In the meantime, heat 1 inch of oil in a small pot on medium-high heat.
- Cut tortillas into thin strips and fry until crispy.
- Place onto a plate layered with paper
- towels to drain.
- Stir in cilantro and taste.
- Go light on the salt, since the tortillas will be salty.
- Slice avocado and divide between bowls, saving a little for garnish.
- Ladle soup
- into four bowls and top with cilantro, avocado, tortilla strips, crumbled queso
- fresco and lime wedges.