I recently received some unhappy news. One of my favorite people in the world, who is also related to me, needed surgery to remove a likely cancerous growth. Distraught, I went to my sister- in- law Chucha for a restorative hug. She gives seriously comforting hugs.
I explained my distress and the following day Felipe came home with a gift from Chucha, a hunk of dried rattlesnake. I am to eat a small piece every day to protect me from the possibility of genetically related cancer.
According to an oncologist treating a woman here in La Tigra, rattlesnake meat is one of the best cancer preventives.
How does it taste? Sort of salty, sort of rancid. Still, I’m grateful to Chucha and all her healing gifts, and I will eat every bite.
I am thrilled to report my dear friend’s prognosis was the very best it could be, and she will require no follow up therapy. Except perhaps, a hunk of dry rattlesnake meat. 🙂
When Felipe’s family arrived in La Tigra, all the ejido land close to town was owned by the town’s founding families. Thus, the plots his family was allotted for planting, though ample, were far up the mountain. Because of the distance, they lived there during the growing season.
Felipe’s father built a shack of sunflower stalks covered in a tarp for the family to sleep in during the season’s heavy rains. It’s difficult for me to imagine this. I’ve weathered the spring rains in my “tank of cinder blocks” house, and felt fear that comes from awe at their force. I shake my head in wonder thinking of him as a child with seven other people inside the tiny structure, made, essentially of sticks, during a deluge.
He says it was cozy and dry. His father and brothers dug a trench around it to divert the water. Every afternoon, his mother smoked it. He recalls the small thuds as scorpions fell from the walls, dizzied by the smoke, as he puts is, they were easy to kill.
Under El Sabino
Felipe, Socorro and I spend our Sunday afternoons together. Occasionally, they like to trek up the mountain to El Sabino, the piece of land they lived on, to look around and reminisce. I pack a lunch. This week’s menu was tostadas de picado de res , and trail mix. The land is called El Sabino for the huge Sabino that lives there. It’s an odd place for a Sabino, generally they grow on the river bank. Socorro thinks there’s an underground river below it and its companion, the biggest mango I’ve ever seen. Both trees require three sets of arms to encircle them.
Soco demonstrates her baking moves
The tour includes a hike through the land as Soco shows us the trees they planted, guajes, limones… and laments the guayaba that died. A tumble of rocks was once her bread oven. She sold bread to the workers who cut a road into the mountain side. The family never needed a road, they came on burros, packed with all the household items they’d need for the season, on trails too narrow to walk abreast.
We pick up garbage, do small repairs to the fence, and fantasize about having a cabin here, like the city slickers from Cuernavaca with a vacation cottage in El Mango, a tiny town even deeper in the forest, which can only be reached by burro or four-wheel drive.
Socorro grabs a handful of prodijiosa* on the way out and Felipe encourages me to taste it, but I remember its remarkably bitter flavor from our last visit and ruin his trick. Soco tells me she’ll make a tea to clean her blood. Felipe recalls the annual ritual; she made him drink a tiny cup for nine days in a row, and if he threw it up, he had to drink another.
Faithful bocho creaks down the “barely a road”, Felipe waves other travelers coming from El Zapote, the “barely a town” on the Cero Frio’s plateau, around us. It’s rumored the road is soon to be paved. El Zapote residents commute to civilization is a jarring, and sometimes treacherous hour, each way. I’m sure they’ll be thrilled to have a fast, smooth commute. I wonder if anyone will feel as I did , happy for the convenience, but saddened by civilizations encroachment.
Concrete or no, we will still have the sabino, the mango and Soco’s stories of life in the campo in the house made of sunflower stalks.
• As usual Soco’ remedy was confirmed by “modern” information.
I fell in love with Felipe for his stories. Years later I realized, as I listened to his mother, whose stories have not been filtered through the knowledge of letters, and are redolent with place, where he’d learned his craft.
We met in Chicago eighteen years ago. He was undocumented, working as a bus boy, I was a server in the same restaurant. As I got to know him, he told me stories of his home town, a tiny village in the Sierra Huautla mountains. To an untraveled Midwestern girl, stories tinged in accent, spilling from a beautiful man lips, made La Tigra sound like the most exotic place on earth.
As he drug the anaconda out from under the mulberry bush last week, I laughed as I thought of my past fascination and naiveté regarding La Tigra. I recalled this story he’d told me many years ago, and I asked him to speak it to me again. I didn’t realize until this telling that the events had taken place where we now live.
The remains of the huamuchil.
When I was a little boy, about six years old, my family was hired to clean peanuts here at the Piedra Rahada, it was owed by my brother -in -law at the time. We were all there, under the big huamuchil that died last year, it was a very old tree even then.
My brothers were bringing the plants from the field and my mother and sisters and I beat the roots with a mocho, the back of a broken off machete, to knock off the peanuts. At that time you could still drink the water from the creeks, when we ran out, it was my job to fetch more.
I went to the place where there is water all year round, between the roots of the big amates and parota, you know the place, all the animals drink there still. As I walked up the creek bed I saw a big rattle snake on its way for water too. I backed away and when there was some room between us I called to my family, “There’s a really big snake down here!” It was about the size of the masaquata I killed today.
My mother came down into the creek bed and when she saw the snake, even though I was pretty spooked by it, she said “Oh that’s not so big! This is what you do. ” She began to look for a big branch. “The stick has to be dry”, she said, “because the venom is like electricity and can travel up a green branch.”
She chopped off a dead branch with her machete. (She still always carries a machete.)She walked up along side the snake, who didn’t even turn to look at her, and smacked it on the head. Dead. She picked it up, went back to work, and I went for water.
Where the wild animals drink.
Soco butchered the snake. The meat was sold as a cancer remedy, and the skin for decoration, unless it was damaged. Damaged skin was used as a preventive medicine for chicken plague. She kept a small piece in their water dish to help keep them from falling prey to illness.
I wondered how Felipe felt about his mother pish-shawing his fear of a large venomous snake.
“I felt good,” he told me,” my mother always made me feel safe, like I could take care of things myself, that there was nothing to fear.”
I can’t think of a better testament to good parenting.
Nopales are a super food. We have a stand in our garden and I prepare them as a side dish, a salad and a taco filling. Nopales can be purchased ready to cook in most latin groceries both here and in the U.S. Lucky you, because cleaning them is sort of a pain, but I don’t mind because they’re easy to grow, delicious and free!
1 pound nopales, cleaned and cut in strips or cubes (I prefer strips)
2 Tbles chopped onion
1-2 serranoes thinly sliced
2 large sprigs epazote or cilantro, roughly chopped
Heat the oil, fry the garlic until translucent and then add everything but the epazote. Cover the pan and cook over low heat, stirring from time to time until the nopales are almost tender: their viscose juices will exude.
Uncover and raise the heat a bit cooking until the sticky liquid has dried up. At this point I like to whisk in a couple of eggs, though it’s not traditional. They make the nopales hang together and easier to eat, also the richness offsets the acidity of the cactus paddles. Add the herb in the last couple of minutes, stir, and fill your tortillas.