The house was smokey and as I walked up the stairs to the second story living room, the smoke thickened, my eyes watered and I could barely see Federico and Dolores through the haze. They were at the large kitchen table chopping onions and cilantro. Beyond them was a large cauldron atop a wood fire bubbling away. But, I couldn’t stay because of the smoke and they sent me downstairs to the altar room to sit with Soledad to drink a Victoria (small size Corona beer) and await the birthday crowd. It was three o-clock in the afternoon. The men began to set up long banquet tables and 20 chairs. The women had been cooking all day; the teenagers swept and washed the floors. The garage was converted into the dining area to accomodate the expected extended family, sons, daughters, aunts, uncles, cousins. At four, they began to arrive with birthday gifts in hand: a 24-pack box of beer, sweet bread, flowers, fruit, chocolate. These are the traditional “regalos” of Zapotec life gifted for all special occasions — food and drink for sustainence, flowers to add beauty and tribute to la vida buena.
Soledad is mother to Federico Chavez Sosa and his three brothers and one sister. She is a substantial, strong, stoic, solid woman who goes to the market daily to sell and make a little extra money. Some days she sells pottery that she has bought elsewhere and takes a small mark-up. Other days, she sells her fresh homemade tortillas or special Christmas wreath bread. She is a great cook. Today, the family pays her homage and cooks an incredible Sopa de Mariscos — a seafood chowder — that has simmered over this charcoal wood fire for hours. We sit at the table. I am with the men because I am the invited guest. We are elbow to elbow and they want me to keep up with the beer consumption. I tell them in my simple Spanish that I must pace myself. Soledad clinks the neck of the Victoria bottle to each “Feliz Compleanos” happy birthday toast with her sons, sister-in-law, and the streaming group of family that arrives and joins the table.
The women in the kitchen bring each of us huge bowls of spicy tomato fish broth. The bowls are brimming with white fish, clams, shrimp and langostinos brought in especially from Salina Cruz on the Pacific coast of Oaxaca. Piles of deep golden yellow fresh made tortillas that are at least 12 inches in diameter are brought to the table, covered with elaborately embroidered cloth. Baskets of fresh baked rolls and plates of extra chopped cilantro and onion arrive. The women serve. The men sit. I acculturate myself to the custom and note that this is tradition, and that women around the world serve their men, including most in the United States.
This is likely the most delicious meal I have eaten in Oaxaca in all the time I have been coming here. I roll the yellow organic maize tortilla and dip it in the broth, slurp and suck the crab legs, pile the ocean’s detritis on the table, mimicking the others. The talk moves into Zapotec and I am clueless. After the meal, the dishes are cleared, other guests arrive with their beer or chocolate, join the crowd and are given food. The homemade cake is brought out along with the mezcal and the women begin to play with the three new babies in the family, singing, clapping, entertaining each other with the joy of just being together. It is now 7 p.m.
The wealth of this environment is in the interconnection between families, the coming together of multi-generations, the mutual support, the sharing of celebration. It is traditional and respectful. Even when there is family conflict and disagreement, issues are put aside in order to participate in life cycle events together. The pace is slower. There are many hands that help raise babies, cook, clean, attend to the small, repetitive tasks of living. We have much to learn from each other, I think, as Estadounidenses re-evaluate our own lifestyles in this era of economic downsizing and belt-tightening. It is a good time to reevaluate our values and personal connections. The experience of living in a Zapotec family and community is teaching me this.