In an earlier post, I mentioned that Husim, Alberto’s sister, was being feted to celebrate her graduation from veterinary college. That party occurred this Saturday evening, and never have I felt so honoured to have been invited to any celebration.
Please forgive the lack of images. My camera battery decided to pack it in this week and you can’t get a replacement here easily. The family have taken photos for me, so I hope to be able to share several soon!
Because it had rained in Tehuacan for two days straight, the family decided not to host the party in their family courtyard, but rather to have it at the Balaquarum. I also mentioned this location in an earlier post, but didn’t realize its significance until this weekend. In Ernesto’s family, each child was presented with a piece of property in Tehuacan. Because Ernesto was the eldest, he lived with his parents in the family home. He didn’t need the property to build his own family home, so instead he used it to build a competition-level training pool for family and friends. The Balaquarum belongs to Ernesto.
On the wall of the Balaquarum in the following inscription:
la vida es una competencia, la tenacidad, intelegencia, disciplina y esfuerzo te dan las armas para el triunfo.
Life is a competition. Tenacity, intelligence, discipline and effort are your weapons for the win.
Carmine greets me warmly, with a kiss. I protest that, with the wet streets, I decided against wearing my pretty dress and feel underdressed for the occasion. She laughs that Alberto is wearing jeans and that I am just fine.
“The most important thing to us is that you are here,” she says genuinely.
I am overcome by their warmth. Mexicans practice extreme hospitality. Ekie and Alberto seat me with his cousin Abram, with whom I share a few words in English. Then, I tuck into the meal, which has been brought promptly.
It is a side of beans, a side of macaroni with ham and pineapple in mayonnaise, and a huge helping of pork in hot sauce. Alberto confides that his mother has bought five whole pigs for the celebration, so much that she paid a nearby bakery to cook it for her. There are huge vats of food upstairs and I am urged to order seconds as soon as my plate is empty. For dessert, there is cake.
When I first arrived in Tehuacan, I was disappointed that Mexicans seem fixated on cake. I once watched one of Alberto’s aunts decorate one for a young boy’s birthday. It featured a farm scene, with cows, pigs, chickens, chicklets, a farmer. Even the corn was perfect, with niblets and husks and hair! It was enchanting. When I was invited to Husim’s party, I asked immediately if there would be cake, only half teasing. I really did want to taste one of these!
I remember all this as I am led to the cake before it is cut. Because Husim is now a veterinarian, the scene is again of a field of animals. There’s a female character done to perfectly mimic Husim, down to the lab coat, the wavy hair and the gentle smile. Cows and pigs stand nearby, but the main creatures are sheep, Husim’s specialty. One sheep is standing on its hindlegs, peering into Husim’s face. She holds a small needle in one hand, and the sheep appears accepting and ready.
The ornaments are made of plastic so are not edible. However, the rest of the cake is. In fact, I say without hesitation that this was the best cake I have ever tasted. It is a white cake with a pineapple filling and a luscious (and not too sweet) icing. I have three pieces (as do most of the other guests!)
Later tonight, I will arrive home to find one of the teachers has made a boxed cake for a friend. With my first bite I know why I have never been a fan of cake, and why I will never forget the Mexican cake. There is no comparison.
Just as I finish eating my second piece of cake, a Mariachi band starts up in the other room! My grandfather was nicknamed Mr. Music in his hometown, Wallaceburg, because he was the high school music teacher and the instigator of every musical event. I leap up to get a better look as the two trumpets, the three guitars, and the two fiddles working their magic. Mariachi bands almost always use a classical guitar and a vihuela (a high-pitched, five-string guitar), a guitarrón (a large acoustic bass guitar). Every man is dressed traditionally, in black, silver studded charro costumes. They all sing in turn and both instruments and voices raise the most beautiful harmonies. None of the instruments are plugged in and the men sing without microphones. This is live music at its finest, sung directly from the heart.
At Ernesto’s encouragement, I get up and stand beside the lead singer. He leans into my side, so I place my head on his shoulder, clasping my hands together like a smitten schoolgirl. Everyone giggles and Ernesto takes a few photos of us together. Then, I kiss the singer soundly on the cheek (Mexican, for “I love it!”)
At my table again, Ernesto asks Ekie to inquire when I am leaving. I tell them my bus will depart at 10AM tomorrow. Ernesto looks distant and shakes his head, and leaves. Returning with a very large shot of tequila, a half lime and some salt, he tells Ekie to explain that he insists I crawl away from the Balaquarum tonight, it being my last in his town. He mimics this crawling movement for me, as if to underscore just how rough I must feel to comply.
Various friends and family members seat themselves beside me over the course of the evening, to practice their English. They are all excited that I am here teaching, because they feel I won’t mind their attempts. I tell them all that they are doing very well (which they are!) and that I am impressed with their courage.
The music has stopped. The band has played for over an hour non-stop, and now they are all seated at the far table, sharing the meal with us. Everyone here is treated like family.
Abram has left his piece of cake unattended, and everyone at the table is teasing him about it, even me who has always preferred pie!
When I beg names of all these people from Ekie, she tells me that everyone is invited, even near strangers. She explains that the beauty of this custom is that you are always meeting new people. While her Dutch upbringing and my Canadian reservation would never encourage this, we both agree that we are unexpectedly drawn to it.
Suddenly, the Balaquarum is overcome with a deafening noise. We can hardly hear each other.
“It’s raining!” says Ekie joyously.
The metal roof intensifies the sound tremendously, and I am returned to my aunt’s Laundry House on the Manitoulin Island, where we children slept fitfully to the occasional roar of a storm.
Small glass mason jars are placed in front of each guest. They are filled with candies and decorated with the same pig faces as on the cake. “In memory of my graduation” each one says on the bottom.
I open mine and take out a candy, and one of the women nearby stops me urgently. Apparently, tequila and sugar do not mix. For the second time tonight, someone mimics me crawling from the Balaquarum. I place the candy back into the jar, delicately.
People begin to file out, but everyone shakes my hand as they pass, or kisses my cheek. We all treat each other with respect and consideration, and we are all happy to have been invited. As they pass the waitstaff (who have in my opinion been extremely attentive) many people press tips into their hands.
I feel very lucky to have had the chance to teach in Tehuacan, but my best memories will always be of this family and of how they have befriended me so completely.
I carry you in my heart, Carmine, Ernesto, Alberto and Ekie, Husim and Carmine, all your aunts and cousins, your brother-in-law, the dogs, cats, rabbits and birds. And I shall miss you, dear Lola, my loyal and intrepid companion.