As a child, Buela was the only word I could coax my American tongue to iterate, short for the Spanish abuela-grandmother. When she died three years ago, it was nearing the first anniversary of a new professional position, which I’d moved for, that started like a brilliant opportunity but later darkened to an increasingly challenging burden. It was also a position I left my partner for in order to follow my career compass. Feeling defeated, I struggled when the funeral called home— the thought of returning for something so intense, seemed like an interruption I couldn't afford and chose to quietly grieve five hundred miles away.
Working through her own her loss, Mom settled her mother’s affairs and began sorting through her belongings. Almost a year later, an envelope arrived at my door. I cracked it open, crinkled tissue and peeled back layers cradling photos. Unlike the ones encased in albums piling on the top shelf of Dad's closet which commemorate times easily remembered, these photos were from another time and place: mom’s high school graduation, portraits of my grandparents and one of my great-grandmother. In the center of the stack, an ivory-skinned woman delicately hued at the cheek and lips regally gazed at me. There was a hint of happiness in her porcelain face hiding behind a static sadness, as if the photographer asked her to play the role of an aristocrat: distinguished and majestic. Buela was no older than twenty—her hair pulled back in trensas creating thick pretzel-like twists. Caressing a bouquet of roses, also blushed with a faint pink, she looked statuesque. At first glance, it wasn't the same woman who let me win at Chinese checkers and made it rain over my head with water-hose sprinkles the summer I spent with her. Soon enough, her face dissolved to the dignified, recognizable lady of few words who loved and cared for her husband through eleven years Alzheimer's and who, when he passed, became a regular Sunday dinner guest at our house.
Of all my grandparents, I look least like Buela Juana. My skin, prieto as toasted russet appeared a snarly charred against the sandiness of hers, a hue you’d get by pouring too much cream in coffee. Her facial features were delicate much like the way she carried her petite figure. The light auburn hair, which she hid under a bonnet whenever she left the house, was always short, out of the way and just as functional as the plain cotton pants and floral-patterned blouses she wore on the bus to the placita or to church. At times, her misplaced chuckles and bellows caused her entire body to hemorrhage. Most often she was a quiet, prim and proper matriarch heeding the Catholic values instilled in her.
"You don't need to see that," she said shutting the console off at the precise moment James Bond saved the world and he and his short-lived love interest went in for a kiss. "Too young."
"Aww, Buela that wasn't done," I said from my beached-whale position in front of the television. I didn’t believe Buela when she told me I was going to like Bond, but it wasn’t even fifteen minutes into the movie that my index finger pointed like the barrel of 9mm and I dropped make-shift spy gadgets, made from scratched Hot Wheels, in my pocket to help the trapped damsel escape her captors.
Despite Buela’s rigid ways, her abilities drew me to her. She often sat for hours--crochet needles in hand—spinning endless designs, sprouted a Garden of Eden in the unlikeliest backyard deserts but nothing lured me as much as watching her work in the kitchen. Buela was a second generation American raised on a cotton farm in Vinton, Texas where she prepared a generation's worth of traditional Mexican delicacies. Most days she stood over the stove and skillet creating large, made-by-scratch feasts for workers on the farm. As one meal ended with men heading back to the fields, clean up and preparation for the next started before the screen door slammed. I don’t know for certain she loved the timeless routines of the farm, but later when I learned she described her job as a wife and mother of three as leisure time in comparison, I gained a deeper appreciation of her strength.
I often imagine Buela besides me peeking underneath a dishtowel waiting for yeast to rise into a cushiony bulb cresting the rim of her old ceramic mixing bowl, a gift Mom gave me as I began life away from El Paso. Buela's stern voice reminds me to handle the dough gently as I attempt to duplicate decadence she created at Christmas. It was the time of the year demanding her effortless talent for producing mountains of meals and sacred Mexican treats: biscochitos, tamales and buñuelos. In the weeks leading to the holiday, Buela covered the surfaces of her modest home with tablecloths, rolled out dough and placed the perfectly round, thin disks on top of the thin linens. When every tabletop, end table and counter couldn’t nestle another delicate pastry, she heated cloud-like lard to a bubbling crackle and began submerging dough until they reached perfect crispness. Then she stacked buñuelos quickly over a workstation, a process perfected by trial and error over the years by her own mother. After several buñuelos accumulated and cooled, the key step for clinging the sugar-cinnamon dust to the golden disk, she used her dainty hands to gently shake the excess onto the next disk which was ready for its emersion. When her surfaces were bare, she began rolling out disks again--until dozens were boxed for gifting.
I'm hardly a man who celebrated my Mexican heritage. Growing up in a city populated by an abundance of friends, teachers, coaches, and leaders who shared my brown skin, I never thought exploring my culture was vital to my self identity. It was ordinary and rarely seemed to shape my interactions, but when my career demanded I travel to pockets of Texas where most people never set their eyes on or want to, where racial tensions pinch and tug like stiff new suits and create circular discussions leading to the door, perceptions of me were often entwined with generalizations and assumptions. It was also apparent I knew very little about where I truly originated.
I wasn’t searching for anything in a history book about Mexican-American pioneers, or to succumb to the familiar static images and stereotypes, or even to debate the nuances of the labels Chicano, Latino or Hispanic. What I wanted was a conversation with the women and men who eventually created the reflection of Mexican culture staring back at me every day. By the time I craved this, the generations that could connect me to those pieces of my history were gone. I instantly knew I should have made different choices: made more time, asked more questions, listened more attentively to every story, anecdote, recipe and ultimately been there to say goodbye—a decision culminating so much guilt.
When I finally forgave myself, the afternoon a year later when I opened the envelope with Buela’s photo, I started asking Mom questions—probing into Buela’s history. Mom doesn’t always have the answers, but as she speaks about the vivid moments she spent with her mother it is easy to distinguish her tremendous love and how much she learned from Buela. Of all things she taught me, no lesson’s more defining than understanding process. Whether it comes in the form of the delicate stages of re-creating the decadent legacies Buela left behind, the layers of acceptance for the choices I make, or the piecing together of fragments of a family mosaic that is inexplicably part of me—the experience of each step, stage, and moment is a mediation and illuminates new insight into the man whose reflection has gained a finer distinction.
It's hard not to think about the fragments Buela left behind when I catch a glimpse of the porcelain-faced woman in the photograph, which is now a permanent fixture in my life. I will never know for certain, but imagine she wanted to be remembered not only for the hard-working, tough-as-nails woman who seemed rigid to the nine-year-old boy sour he missed the last minute of the Bond film, but also as the young hopeful, compassionate woman in a lacey bridesmaid dress whose journey was just beginning.