My little brother and I are obsessed with food. I do not use the word “obsessed” lightly. We both get excited about a good loaf of bread. We love exploring farmers’ markets, mercados and the frozen food aisle of Trader Joe’s. Sometimes, in our downtime, we flip through Rick Bayless’ cookbooks of Mexican recipes to find things we could make ourselves.
Fittingly, we decided to actually make some of the recipes we’d drooled over and cook a big dinner for our parents. We agonized over the menu for days, finally settling on marinated skirt steak, jicama and avocado salad, sautéed bell peppers and onions, corn tomalito and fire-roasted salsa. And the crowning jewel: homemade tortillas, soft and warm and perfectly textured, just like the ones my father grew up eating in El Salvador.
The morning of our dinner, we went to La Palma in the Mission District to buy fresh masa. The room was bustling; families were buying carnitas and sweet tamales, women in the back kitchen patted masa into tortillas and pupusas and huaraches, and harried clerks scooped masa harina into bags. My brother and I salivated over the greasy chicharónes and gorditas before approaching the counter to place an order.
I scanned the list of different types of masa: fina, preparada, blue corn, etc. I froze. I didn’t know what type to get; I’d forgotten to ask my dad, tortilla expert, before I’d left the house. I knew a bit about it, since I’d done research about masa versus masa harina (the flour that’s mixed with water to make masa). Preparada— that had to be a English-Spanish cognate for “prepared,” right? As in, prepared for tortilla-making? I panicked, just like I do every time I feel like a Latina Out of Water.
This happens often. It’s standard territory for a girl that should’ve grown up speaking Spanish. My dad says he’s guilty of not teaching it to my brothers and I when we were little, when we would’ve learned it without a problem. But four years of Spanish classes later, I still haven’t picked it up, and that’s not my dad’s fault.
I’m reminded of my failure when I go to panaderias or taquerias and try to order in Spanish, but stumble over the words. The servers smile a bit in pity and tell me how much to pay—in English. I’m reminded every time I try to talk with one of my Salvadoran relatives, who only know a few phrases in English, hardly enough to establish a solid relationship. I never had a meaningful conversation with my abuelita before she died last winter. College classes taught me how to conjugate in the subjunctive mood and impersonal versus impersonal pronouns, but what good is that if I can barely exchange words with my Spanish-speaking family?
I should have been able to speak in Spanish to the cashier, like the rest of the families in line. I should have been able to chat her up and ask about the specific types of masa that they sold. But I couldn’t, so I blurted out, “Masa preparada, por favor." I wanted to pretend that I knew what I was doing, that I wasn’t just another White-passing girl in the Mission. I wanted access to my Latina-ness that I rarely felt I could lay claim to without speaking Spanish.
My brother and I started to make tortillas in the afternoon. I’d been watching lots of Youtube videos of old women in tortillerías shaping the dough, cooking it on the comal and flipping it at just the right time. I replicated their technique as best as I could, flattening a ball of dough between two large dinner plates and tossing it onto a nonstick pan.
When the first one was ready, soft and warm and perfectly textured just as I’d hoped, I called my dad into the room so he could taste-test it with us. We ripped it into thirds and took a bite.
I tasted lard, which oozed out of the dough, and I knew that something was wrong. Corn tortillas shouldn't ooze.
My dad made a face, wrinkling his nose. “These are greasy,” he said. He looked at the bag. “Guys, you got masa for tamales. Masa preparada. This has lard in it. Did you not ask for tortilla masa?”
I think he saw my lip quiver a bit, since his voice softened. “Forget about the tortillas,” he said, tossing the bag in the garbage. “We’ve got corn ones from Trader Joe's.”
I wasn’t in the mood to think about the plastic-wrapped, stiff yellow disks sitting in our refrigerator. I had my heart set on doing it right, on making tortillas that were at least half as good as my abuelita’s.
I slunk to my room and cried. I was angry. I could’ve just asked if I was ordering the right masa, but I hadn’t. I had been too proud to ask for help, to acknowledge my ignorance.
This was always the problem, wasn’t it? I didn’t want to look like the ignorant white girl in front of my relatives, so I chose to stay quiet instead of butchering Spanish. I wanted to belong so badly that I hid behind silence and pretended that I knew what I was doing.
I sat on my bed for a while and wallowed, extrapolating this mini-failure to all of my other Failures at Being Latina. White boys in my Spanish classes could speak more fluently than I could, I couldn't roll my r’s, I couldn’t speak to my relatives; the list went on and on, ad infinitium, ad nauseam.
But wallowing was useless, of course. Sulking about not knowing Spanish wasn’t going to help me learn it, and crying over masa preparada wasn’t going to change anything.
We ate packaged Trader Joe’s tortillas with dinner, which are fine if you cook them over an open stove flame for a minute or so. I got over it.
A week later, my little brother and I went back to La Palma. I ordered the right thing this time — “masa fina, por favor” — and didn’t have an overblown identity crisis in the process. That night, I spent half an hour at the stove, rolling and pressing and flipping.
The tortillas weren’t perfect. Some of them were slightly undercooked, others a little too brown, others a bit lopsided. But they were soft and warm and perfectly textured, so what else could I really ask for? They didn't ooze, and they were mine.
My tortillas will never come close to my abuelita’s, because I haven’t spent years perfecting the art of rolling and pressing and flipping. My Spanish will never be polished enough to pass as my native tongue, because it’s not. And my Latina-ness will always be rough-edged, because I am also half white and identity politics are complicated. But that doesn’t mean that my tortillas are awful or that I’ll never be good at Spanish or that I’m not Latina enough.
And my dad said that my tortillas were “really good,” so that’s affirmation enough for me.