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Karen Borrell grew up in a small New York town in the Adirondacks, having no idea that life’s twists and turns would eventually lead her, as a wife and mother, to a rural town in another country. Karen cherishes her memories of the time she and her children lived in Cuautla, Moreles, Mexico. Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center. Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns
I often recall the days when my children were small and my ordinary days were pretty much governed by their needs. I worked around those needs for whatever else seemed important for me at the time, and I remember those days with much pleasure.
Looking back, they were sweet, simple times, and there was the enjoyment of no terrible schedules. This was before regular schooling and all of the complications that come as our children grow older.
In 1961 and 1962, we were living in a small town about three hours southeast of Mexico City. Our family had moved there in order to drastically reduce expenses while my husband resolved his work situation in Mexico City. He was able to come home only on weekends and holidays, usually bringing house guests with him, visits which were greatly enjoyed by us all.
Cuautla, Morelos, was a lazy, semi-tropical retreat that grew orchids and other typical hot-house plants and flowers, in addition to tomatoes, mangos, and other fruits and vegetables, along with the cultivation of honey. Its soil was rich and blessed with much sun all year long and abundant rain during the rainy season.
The town people spoke Spanish, but the Indian population, which predominated, spoke Nahuatl. Shopping in the market, I learned mostly Nahuatl words to make my purchases.
The generator which furnished electricity to the town and outskirts was not sufficient for the population needs, so we had to ration that convenience, which one tends to take for granted. I learned to live with very little short-term refrigeration, and listened to the radio mostly after 10 p.m. when most of the town people were asleep and the lights got bright enough to read by, or the radio had power enough to function.
My days began with cooking basic foods for my three children. We had no “fast foods.” I cooked everything from scratch, and ground appropriate foods to a fine puree in my blender to make baby food for my 6-month old baby girl. Milk was brought to me daily from a local cow, and I simmered it slowly for two hours to kill bacteria and Typhoid germs.
Help was very cheap in those days, so I also had a live-in maid. Lupe came with me when the decision was made to move to Cuautla, and she was my dear companion for seven years. We both grew to love Cuautla immensely.
Lupe would watch the children while I slung a basket over my arm and strolled to the corner to wait for a bus that would take me to the Zocalo, which was the center of town and the market and shops area.
I always attracted a lot of attention, as we were the only Caucasians living there. People were curious, but very kind. I never felt unsafe and fell into a comfortable routine.
First I shopped for my daily meat. The meat stall offered freshly killed pork, beef or goat, all hung on giant hooks, simply skinned. One pointed to the area desired, and the vendor sliced off approximately the amount you wished. Not being aged, the meat was very tough and had to be pounded flat numerous times on a big cutting board in order to render the meat more tender.
If chicken was on the menu, a different stall prepared that for me, and always included the head and feet. Almost all parts of animal and poultry get used in cooking, and I learned how to enjoy the way it was prepared and the wonderful tastes of the results.
After selecting my meat, I would locate my favorite merchants for fruits, vegetables, and tortillas. I had to be careful not to over-buy, as I had to carry it all and still get back on the bus for home.
Once home, there would be light snacks and play time out on the grass and veranda. Then the children would have nap time. Erika, the 6-month old, was put in her crib, and 3-year old Philip and 4-year old Jordi each crawled into a hammock strung out beneath our garden trees.
During this time, Lupe and I fixed the big meal of the day. I was an enthusiastic learner of Mexican cuisine, and dared to try many recipes from my two cookbooks, which I use and cherish to this day.
When the children woke, we ate; afterwards, the afternoon was ours. We could play in our yard or take walks in the neighborhood. There was a shallow river that we loved to wade through. We could walk down dirt roads and pass free-roaming hogs, chickens, horses, and sheep.
Faces became familiar and friendly. I felt some of them were even protective towards us. We were their local oddity, but an admired oddity. My children were very white and blond, and so unusual in those surroundings; so of course people recognized us everywhere.
Bedtime came after more play and story time. First they took a shower in our tiled, open stall – no place to put a curtain. The water was heated by purchased bundles of packed wood shavings which were put into a burner shortly before the desired shower.
After the children were put to bed, it was my time to sew on my sewing machine if there was enough electricity so that the machine wouldn’t go, “unh…unh…unh.” If that wasn’t possible, I would sit at our small dining room table with a kerosene lamp and write letters home or read a book, or knit. If I wasn’t too tired, I tuned in to something on the radio after 10 p.m.
Those simple and ordinary days linger richly in my memories. They were such wonderful days of routine, and at the same time, there was the constant introduction to an exotic new culture for all of us.
Published: June 26, 2014 – Volume 13 – Issue 11