Author Rick Martinez talks about traveling 20,000 miles across Mexico to call home

My memories with my grandmother revolve around food. I still remember the smell of pinto beans simmering in his kitchen, where I spent every Sunday night as a kid. What looked like several hundred warm homemade flour tortillas, each perfectly round, was still stacked towards the ceiling. Amid the smell of stewed pork, dried chili peppers, and cumin, she greeted me by grabbing my cheek, hugging me, and kissing me. It was home, and it was my family’s food.

I had traveled through Mexico for seven months – and nearly 17,000 miles – before tasting what my grandmother used to cook.

Then I stopped for lunch at market in Santiago, just outside Monterrey, and ordered a red pork guiso (stew). It came with beans and rice and harina (flour) tortillas. When the plate landed in front of me, I had an instant flashback to my grandmother’s table – what was sitting in front of me looked exactly like the food she was cooking. The pinto beans were mashed with rich, juicy pork fat. The flour tortillas were thick, perfect for soaking up the red stew. I took a bite, cried and sat there, barely able to finish eating. I called my dad and cried.

I had found a connection through food.

Maíz being ground into masa in Janitzio, Michoacán

Rene Fuller

A street view in Capula, Michoacán

Rene Fuller

But the thing was, the people of Monterrey weren’t like me. They were very similar to my father’s side of the family: the Martínezes are fair-skinned and lighter-haired than my mother’s side, the Castruitas. I have more of my maternal grandfather’s traits – darker hair, darker skin, darker eyes, sharper features on my face, more not anymore (brown). I had found a piece of the puzzle in Monterrey, but there were still pieces missing.

That changed a few days later when I drove to Saltillo, Coahuila, about an hour southwest of Monterrey. I parked and walked the cobbled streets of Spanish Colonial squares, finally sitting on a bench and watching a family play in front of me. There was a little girl about three years old, wearing a little white dress and black Mary Jane shoes, who was dancing between her parents. She turned to me and my heart sank: she looked exactly like a picture of my mother when she was the same age. I sat there, frozen, tears in my eyes at the striking resemblance. I then walked through the mercado – and everyone I saw looked familiar. It was like being at a wedding and bumping into relatives I hadn’t seen in years; I didn’t remember their names, but I knew their faces.

That might have been enough to get home. I had rediscovered the flavors of my childhood and I had found people who looked like me. However, it still lacked the sense of personal belonging that I expected – that I desperately wanted. I hadn’t found a place that seemed to be mine; I had not found my place in Mexico.

Just when I was getting closer to finding what I had come looking for, the world turned upside down. In March 2020, when the pandemic hit the United States and Mexico hard, I was in the middle of the desert in Coahuila. When I realized we were going into lockdown, I drove eight hours to the first major city in the open Pacific, Mazatlán. I better wait outside.

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