The bonds between family transcend all barriers, whether they be physical or invisible, cultural or linguistic.
Such is what I experienced last month when my grandfather and I traveled to Bahía Kino, Mexico, to spend Christmas with our “Mexican family” — or “familia mexicana,” if you prefer.
The Zazueta family — consisting of Yolanda and Tony and their children, Viridiana, Ramón and José — has been part of our family for the past 25 years, when my grandparents purchased a house a block from the Sea of Cortez in the tiny fishing village of Bahía Kino (Kino Bay), several hours south of Tucson, Arizona. Yolanda had been the housekeeper for the house’s previous owners, and began working for my grandparents.
Despite a bit of a language barrier — my grandparents didn’t learn basic Spanish until after they retired in their late 50s — Yolanda quickly became more than just someone who came by to clean their house once a week. She became a daughter to them. To this day, Viridiana, Ramón and José, now grown and with children of their own, refer to my grandfather and my late grandmother as abuelo and abuela.
In recent years, Tony has had health problems stemming from his years as a commercial fisherman. Hours of deep-sea diving has taken a toll on his kidneys, forcing him into a routine that has him and Yolanda making a 230-kilometer round trip twice a week for dialysis, and countless appointments with specialists to see if he can get on a waiting list for a transplant. With him being out of work, and Yolanda doing everything she can to make ends meet — including selling Avon and Mary Kay — it has been a real financial struggle.
Thus, my grandfather and I decided to reunite with our familia and celebrate the holidays, Mexican-style, and provide a little support for Yolanda and Tony — familial and financial.
It’s a trip I’ve made many times myself over the past 25 years, but one that has become even more enjoyable now that I speak the language. Going to Cancun or Puerto Vallarta and staying in a resort that caters to English-speaking tourists is one thing. Going to a hardscrabble fishing village in the middle of nowhere, where barely anyone speaks a word of English — and particularly when you are of Mexican heritage and look like you should be able to speak Spanish, but can’t — is quite another.
We were invited to join our Mexican family for a Christmas Eve feast at Tony and Yolanda’s house. Twenty-five years earlier, their home was a tar-paper shack with dirt floors. Today, it is a modest stucco-and-cinder-block house located on the same lot, but one that is exceedingly well-kept and a monument to how far they have come. And yet, they were the same gracious hosts then that they are now.
As is tradition, Yolanda spent most of Christmas Eve preparing tamales — 96 of them, by her count. Side dishes, including homemade beans, posole and tortillas, filled the table. And just when you thought that was more than enough food, she brought out an entire roasted turkey — a tribute to holiday dinners gone by with my grandparents.
The next day, I even got to get in touch with my own “inner Mexican.” Yolanda is somewhat of a legend for her tortilla-making ability — making giant flour tortillas so thin they’re almost transparent and the circumference of a 50-gallon drum. She decided to try to teach my grandfather and I how to make tortillas of our own.
Let’s just say I need a little more practice. But while my tortilla-making skills may need some work, that’s far from the biggest thing I can take from visiting our family south of the border. Rather, I have learned that no matter what differences we may have, we share far more in common.
We may be from different countries. Some of us may have never experienced poverty, while that’s all others have ever known. We might not speak the same language. We may enjoy turkey at holiday dinners while they enjoy tamales — though Tony ate an entire turkey leg and I ate half a dozen tamales in a single sitting, so that one might not be a valid contrast.
But, family is family. La familia es la familia. And I can’t wait until the next time I see mine.
Darren Vaughan is the sports editor for the Transcript Bulletin. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.