The Zen of Tortillas

The hot, dry smell of flaming masa oozes through the kitchen, invading my nostrils, my mouth. Even my pupils feel thick with the odor. It reminds me of grilled toast. My eyes tear and I blink, hoping to hide the unwanted moisture. My mother glares at me. She wants to avoid any breakdowns. With one hand, I slap the dough onto the comal with a loud thunk.

“Awww!” I yank my fingers away from the pan and stick my hand in my mouth, an old habit from childhood. A sharp jab in the ribs causes me to wince. “What the fu…” I turn and find the brown, unlined face of my mother, glowering at me. Her eyebrows, now gray, form a hairy line above her eyes, like a trembling caterpillar.

“Concentrate,” Mom says.

My mother places her ball of dough, which is perfectly flat and round like a thick crepe, gently onto the comal. It hisses and pops. After 30 seconds, my mother picks up the tortilla by one end and flips it over with her bare hands. She doesn’t cringe. Her hands, tough and dry like old leather, are a testament to more than 70 years of cooking. “Gloria,” she says, as though I’m still eight-years old. “You have to pay attention. Look. Even your sister is doing it.”

I glance at the other end of the table. In between a green Tupperware bowl filled with flour and a molcajete overflowing with chopped onions sits Angelica. My older sister doesn’t bother to look up. I can see her smirking. It is only 1:00 p.m., a Saturday, and Angelica has already shaped about 10 tortillas. I haven’t completed one. Her tortillas are thick like saucers, golden and glorious, as they lie in a stack. Even in her weakened state, my sister is beating me.

“So cancer girl can cook. So what,” I say, instantly regretting my words. At that moment, the smoke detector screams “Wah! Wah! Wah!” and I look at the comal. The charred lump of my tortilla sits in the center of the thin, steel griddle, heaving grey billows of smoke into the air. I forgot to flip it, of course. With a fork, I pick up the burnt remains and flick the debris into the garbage can. I refuse to look at my mother or sibling. Too many daydreams combined with too little water have destroyed all my tortilla attempts. I count roughly seven misshapen and charred lumps lining the garbage can’s bottom. “I suck at this.”

“Yup. You got that right,” my sister says, laughing.

In anger, I stare at the table, which is covered with a sheet of plastic. Scotch tape covers the various rips, tears, and burns my sister and I have inflicted on the table, which my parents bought when they first arrived from Mexico nearly 40 years ago. It wobbles, one leg perched on a Reader’s Digest from 1996. In between a wicker basket that holds sugar-free candies, a white salt shaker from the 1970s that is partially melted at the bottom, and a chicken roaster that my mother bought off of an infomercial, sits a collection of Vanidades, my mom’s beloved gossip magazine. They are her frequent companions since my father died 15 years ago and we, her only children, have moved away.

“You can’t quit now,” Mom says.

“Why not?”

“You just can’t.”

I sigh heavily. I pick up another chunk of masa and begin anew. I stroke the dough in my hands, patting it back and forth, back and forth as though it is a baby. I hear my older sister’s snicker, loud and whiny as though she has a bean in her nose. I try to ignore her. Yet my heart pounds with fury as her giggles continue. Angelica’s laugh haunted my childhood. I remember hearing her high-pitched squeal when my pants ripped during a high school awards ceremony, when I wore mismatched socks to school at age six and she didn’t stop me, when menstrual blood seeped through my white summer dress at 14.

“Shut up, Angelica!” I yell before my mother can stop me. “Just because you’re sick doesn’t mean I won’t slap you.”

My sister — who refuses to answer to Angie or Ang — merely lifts her chin and grins. She waits for my mom to scold me. Without her hair, Angelica looks like an eagle ready to pounce as she sits at the table. She is so fragile now. A mastectomy, combined with eight weeks of chemo along with another five weeks of radiation, caused my sibling to shed about 25 pounds. Even her head is skinny. I can see veins through the fuzz, which is growing in gray and curly, while her ears look like satellite dishes. She wears the pink knit cap that I bought at a local flea market thinking it would make her look like a painter. Instead, it nearly engulfs Angelica’s skull.

“Gloria, control yourself.”

“Mom, she should be nice to me. Just because Angelica’s sick doesn’t mean she gets to do whatever she wants.”

“Mom. M-o-o-o-m-m-m,” my sister says. Her claw-like hands place some dough onto a waiting plate from which my mother whooshes it onto the comal. Angelica sticks her tongue at me while my mother’s back is turned.

“Look! Look what’s she’s doing.”

My mother doesn’t even bother to glance at her. “Ay, dios mio. You two will never grow up. Gloria, control yourself. You have to be nice. Especially now that…” Mom doesn’t finish her sentence. I see the tears form in her eyes, her chin begin to shake. Like me, she blinks them away.

“But Angelica is the one who wanted this. She shouldn’t laugh.”

My mom doesn’t respond. Instead, she takes another glob of masa and begins anew. Over and over, she pats the dough, like a toddler that needs to be burped, one hand lightly hitting it while the other moves the masa back and forth. Then she places the flattened ball onto the grill. For 30 seconds it crackles. With the edges of her finger tips, mom flips it and waits another 30 seconds. The sides brown and I inhale.

Nearly a year ago, my sister received her diagnosis as she was waiting to pick up her daughter from cheerleading practice. Angelica had noticed the lump, which felt like a pea in her right breast, years ago. Checkup after checkup, her doctors had labeled it harmless. Somehow, during Angelica’s 42nd year, the pea had mutated, spreading its poison to several lymph nodes and a one-centimeter spot in her hip. The doctor’s removed both her breasts and blasted my sister’s body with drugs and radiation.

We still don’t know if that was enough. The doctors say Angelica is in remission but we, her family, are still in combat mode. We do everything for my sister even though the treatments ended months ago. Mom cooks meals for Angelica and her family, sending me with a pot of caldo de pollo or a container full of chilles rellenos to my sister’s house in suburban Chicago. I wash her family’s clothes, pick up Angelica’s daughter from school, and counsel her husband, Marty, to “be cheerful, for god’s sake.”

Angelica, who questioned everything and everyone when we were growing up, withdrew once she was diagnosed. She refused to talk about the disease or its consequences. So it came as a surprise when she made this request. My sister phoned Mom a week ago and asked for the lessons. Tortilla-making 101. My mother had tried for years to instill in us, her American-born daughters, the proper way to make home-cooked tortillas. “Tortillas are the basis of all Mexican food,” she would say. “You can’t serve rice and beans without hot tortillas.” We should’ve been humbled, honored by the gift that she wanted to bestow from mother to daughters, something akin to my mom sharing her secret ingredient to enchiladas potosinas or how to keep socks white wash after wash. It was a treasure we should’ve cherished. But we were ignorant. Saturday after Saturday, she tried to instruct Angelica and I on the proper amount of water to add to the masa, whether it was better to use an iron tortilla maker or form the dough by hand, or how hot the comal should be. We never paid attention. We were better than that. Home-made tortillas were for silly women who wanted only to please their men, we thought. We were liberated and with our education (although we were both still in grammar school), we could buy them from the store, we said. “Good Mexican girls need to know how to make tortillas,” my mother would charge back.

The lessons ceased when I hit the fourth grade. It was my fault, I confess. I shamed Angelica during a period in her life when I should’ve let her be. I never understood my sister, especially when we were kids. When I saw her sitting in the school cafeteria, wearing skin-tight bon jour jeans, a purple disco top that hugged her chest like a sausage skin, and straight black hair that cascaded down to her butt, I felt sorry for her. At 13, she seemed so sad reading The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy all alone while eating a tuna fish sandwich. So I hopped on a seat next to her.

“Don’t sit here,” she hissed.

“That’s okay.”

“Go away, Gloria. Just go.”

I ignored her warning. That morning, my mother had braided my hair to twirl around my ears, like muffins, as a testament to my idol, Princess Leia. Mom had twined lime-green ribbons through the strands. In my red dress and white sneakers, I must’ve looked like a walking piñata. I didn’t notice my sister’s glares as I invited all my fellow 10-year-olds, with their lunchboxes, Barbie dolls, and juice drinks, to eat with us. They all came. Some even invited more friends.

“Go away. Pl-e-e-e-e-a-a-a-se just go.”

“She’s always like this,” I said to my classmates. “She just doesn’t know how to be nice.”

How embarrassed Angelica must’ve been, how angry. I didn’t notice her friends laughing, pointing at my older sister. She was in the eighth grade and on the cusp of womanhood. She was trying so hard to impress. Instead, she was forced to sit with her gawky sister and a platoon of kids. She couldn’t walk away or admit she cared. Angelica was trapped. I didn’t know why my sister wouldn’t answer any of my questions, respond to our jokes, or acknowledge us as she continued to read. “She just doesn’t know how to be friendly,” I said to everyone at the lunch table.

“That’s so sad.” Elsa, my second best friend and resident math whiz, smiled at my sister, her steel braces covered with peanut butter. “I’ll be your friend.”

“Get away.”

“This is so sad,” said Elsa, slurping her grape soda.

My sister didn’t speak to me for two days afterward. I was mystified by her behavior but sure I had done right. I’d helped her out. If Angelica couldn’t appreciate me, that was her fault. A few days later I was stunned when some teenagers began throwing diapers and sanitary napkins at me as I rode my bike down 26th Street. I remember the thick plastic slapping my head as I steered past a group of laughing kids. They whistled and howled, calling me “little baby” or “the leaky one.” Angelica had told my friends, swearing on a Bible and a stack of Tiger Beat magazines, that I wet the bed. No one bothered to ask me if it was true or listened to my protests. It was too much fun. Even Elsa giggled about it. “It’s a lie,” I said.

“Sure. We believe you,” Elsa said. Then she grinned.

I was humiliated. I waited until Saturday, our morning tortilla lesson, to exact revenge. My mother spent 10 minutes lecturing Angelica and I on how to properly mix the masa and which instruments are best to stir (a large wooden spoon was my mom’s choice) before she left to buy barbacoa and pan dulce. She ordered us to make as many tortillas as possible. As soon as my mother was out the door, I began my assault. “You bitch,” I yelled, while I lobbed masa at Angelica’s head. “How could you tell everyone that I wet the bed?”

“You made me look stupid. Everyone laughed at me,” my sister screamed back. She picked up a box of Fruit Loops and threw the open container at me. A rainbow of sugar scattered all over the kitchen floor.

“How did I do that? I was just trying to help.”

“I don’t need your help. Everything was fine until you came. You embarrassed me.”

I was astonished by her claims. I was so nice, everyone said so. Angelica was the mean one, the sister who never had a nice word. I decided she had to pay. We chased each other through the house, toppling the wicker chairs in the kitchen, tumbling my mother’s porcelain bunnies in the living room, and causing a painting of the Virgen de Guadalupe to crash to the floor. I grabbed Angelica, who was short, barely five feet tall and skinny like a pencil, and threw her to the ground. With one hand clenched to her neck, I sat on my sister’s chest and mashed masa into her long hair until it turned a crusty white.

“Say it,” I yelled. “Say you’re sorry.”

“No.”

“Say it.”

“No. You made me look stupid.”

“Did not.”

“Did too.”

As we yelled, we didn’t hear the front door open. My mother had forgotten her money and returned to the house. What she must have thought! She walked through the hall, her rubber chanclas (sandals) squeaking on the wood floor, as her eyes grew as wide as paper plates. The kitchen’s walls were caked with dough, the floor covered in flour. Crushed fruit loops were stuck everywhere, their “crunch, crunch, crunch” mocking my mom’s every step.

“Gloria, get off your sister.”

I had never heard Mother’s voice so cold and hard. I didn’t recognize it.

“G-e-e-e-t-t off of her.”

“Yes, Mami.”

She yanked us both to standing positions. My jeans and T-shirt were drenched in masa while Angelica’s hair stuck out in white, doughy tentacles. “What are you doing? What sort of daughters do I have? I am so ashamed,” my mom yelled. And: “You both act like animals. No respect, no class.”

My mother pulled us into the kitchen and pointed at the mess of dough on the floor. “Clean this up. Now.”

We spent the rest of the weekend washing the floors, gluing together the broken rabbits. I had to shampoo Angelica’s hair. We kept waiting for our mother to punish us, to scream at us more. She did neither. Instead, the lessons stopped. Mom never mentioned tortilla making again.

“You have to keep trying,” my mom says.

“But why? I never wanted this.” Despite my protests, I slam the dough onto the comal and watch the sides brown. One side bubbles up, like a large zit, and bursts. The other end, thin because of too much liquid, fails to keep shape. The batter spreads to the edges of the pan. “Oh, Gloria,” my mom says. In my late 30s, I still cannot form a simple tortilla. They are either too spongy, imbalanced, like dumplings, so that they don’t cook through, or they are so skinny, like paper, that they cannot hold a bean or even a shred of egg.

“You really do suck at that.”

“Angelica,” my mother says, “try to be nice. You need to learn to be kind. Especially now.”

“Because you think I’m dying, I should be nicer?” As she speaks, my sister pummels the dough in her hands with renewed vengeance. She smacks it, punches the masa, and then drives her knuckles into it. “Really, Mami, shouldn’t we for once be honest?”

“Ay, Angelica. Why do you say these things?” My mother shakes her head, a motion she often made during my childhood when she spoke to my sister. They didn’t understand each other. No one understood Angelica.

My mother sighs and turns to me. “Try again.”

“Ooooh, no. I’ve messed up so many. Just let Angelica do them.”

“You can’t do it, you can’t do it,” my sister sings. “I knew you couldn’t.”

Her teasing causes my cheeks to flush, my hands to shake. After so many years, her mocking shouldn’t rattle me, not now, not after all that I’ve accomplished. Yet my sister’s laughter disturbs me. I pick up a chunk of masa and begin forming it, ignoring how my hands shake. I am the successful daughter, the one with a career. Angelica’s laughter shouldn’t bother me. It does. I stop patting the dough and pull it behind my head as though to throw it at her.

“Stop it! Both of you. Stop.” My mother stomps to the kitchen sink and rinses her hands, which are covered with dried masa. “You both still can’t behave yourselves. You always act like children. Like selfish little children.”

As a kid, I’d often complain that my sister was the mean one. She questioned everything and said whatever popped in her head. Angelica had no mental filter. “I can’t believe Graciela got mad at me for telling her those pants made her look fatter,” my sister once complained. “She should be happy. Now she can wear something that suits her.” Angelica didn’t understand why, when the phone rang, it was usually for me. I was the nice sister. The popular one, the sister that got invited to parties and asked to dances. Though I was taller and heavier and lacked Angelica’s natural waifishness, neighborhood kids would frequently appear on our doorstep asking for me to come out and play. Rarely did anyone come for Angelica.

Our relationship, as adults, has remained the same. I am kind and easygoing while Angelica is complex. She reminds me of a molé sauce. Spicy and strong on the first taste, complex thereafter, with occasional bursts of sweetness. My sister says I’m like vanilla ice cream, a one-note flavor that is dull and flat throughout. But molé sauce, I counter, is hard to take meal after meal, and gives people a stomachache.

“Oh, Gloria whines all the time. She drives me crazy with all her complaining,” Angelica says. She stares at me as she flattens her dough. Her black eyes flash with anger. Angelica is always mad now. It saddened me, as well as my mother, to see my sister revert to her former pissed-off self. Angelica was so happy after she married Marty, a lawyer at the firm where she worked. She stopped growling about how hard her life was or how we sided against her. She gave birth to a daughter, Maricella, learned to crochet, and even joined the PTA. And she was chubby. Baby weight made Angelica rounded and healthy, like those suburban moms that drive SUVs. We even looked like sisters then. I’ve always been the more American-looking one, with hips and boobs. Angelica, with happiness, gained these traits as her long-running angst seemed to subside. Sometimes, we even went out to lunch and Angelica would regale me with tales of her daughter’s brilliance. This bliss ended with the cancer. With the disease, the bitterness of my sister’s youth returned.

As I mold the dough between my hands, I focus on the walls. My mother moved to this house, a bungalow in southwest Chicago, 10 years after my father died. It was my sister and I who organized her home. We spent three days painting the kitchen watermelon red, because Mom wanted to celebrate life.

My mother picked well. Chunks of sunlight blaze through the kitchen’s windows, causing the air to shimmer. The pots and pans appear shiny and new, the kitchen floor, covered with cream tiles, glistens. Even my sister looks lively, a glow spreading through her hollow cheeks.

 “Look...” I say, and stop.

“What?” Angelica says.

“I just think...”

“What?” When I don’t respond immediately, my sister rolls her eyes. “Just spit it out, Gloria.”

“Why don’t you make the rest of the tortillas? You can make them better than me.”

“No.”

“Why?”

“Because.”

“Because why?”

“I’m tired, that’s why.” With a huff, my sister drops a freshly shaped tortilla onto a plate and leans her flat chest away from the table. “And what will you do?”

“I’ll make some coffee. That’s something I can do. You know you should make the tortillas. Yours are just so much better.”

“You’re just lazy.”

“Maybe. But yours are still better.”

Angelica pauses for a moment as she considers my words. I have grown used to her conversational lapses, the side effects of chemo. My mother, who is standing at the other end of the table, says nothing. She is letting us work this out.

“Fine,” Angelica says after a few moments.

“You sure?”

“Yes.”

She picks up a hunk of masa and begins fondling it. I can see that her fingers are weak, almost too feeble to mold the dough. She tires easily. “Maybe I should help you?” As the words slip out, I realize I have said exactly the wrong thing.

“I can do it.” Angelica glares at me. “Make the coffee.”

“You sure?”

“Yes.”

I search the refrigerator for the canister filled with grounds. I find a pot containing boiled pinto beans, a plate lined with five chile anchos, already burnt, skinned, and ready to be stuffed with jack cheese or ground beef. My mother has prepared for dinner. As I rummage, I realize I know very little about my sister. I don’t know if she is still happy with her marriage, if she’s scared of dying, or if she worries about what will happen to her daughter. She hasn’t told me.

“How are you feeling?” I say. My back is turned but I imagine her grimace. I find the coffee hiding behind a gallon of milk. With one foot, I slam the door.

“Are you still as tired as you were during radiation?”

“I’m fine.”

“Is Maricella helping you at home?”

“Of course she is. What did you think?”

The mood in the kitchen turns angry and dark. I look at my mother, who is now sitting next to Angelica at the table, for help. She shakes her head. Mom picks up my sister’s tea and sips. Immediately, she begins to choke. “What is this?”

Angelica slams the dough onto a plate. She grabs the cup out of my mother’s hands. I know someone at the hospital has given my sister this mystery potion, a drink that is supposed to cure cancer. I’ve heard it contains elephant’s urine, cat whiskers, and garlic. “Mami,” she says, “I told you not to drink this. It’s special.”

I rush over and take the cup. The tea is dark and thick, like dirty gravy. “Are you sure it’s okay for you?”

“Of course it is, Gloria.”

“Did they tell you what’s in it?”

“No.”

“So then how do you know? What if it’s poison? What if it makes things worse?” I cannot stop the hysteria from sounding in my voice.

“Will you shut up, Gloria? You don’t know nothing about nothing, okay? Just leave me alone.”

“Fine.”

“You’re such a whiny baby.”

“No, I’m not.”

“Yes, you are.”

“No I’m not, you bitch.”

“Stop! Stop it!” My mother says. “Always it has been like this. Fight, fight, fight.”

“Mom, it’s Angelica. She’s always so mean.”

“You’re the brat.”

“I am not a brat.”

“Yes, you are.” Angelica picks up the dough and begins hitting it again, slap-slap-slap, over and over. “Mom always loved you better,” she says quietly.

“What did you say?” My mother cannot hide the pain in her voice.

“You heard me, old woman. You always loved Gloria better. Ever since she was born. It was always ‘my little girl’ this or ‘my little girl’s gonna be that.’”

“Angelica, how can you say this?” At 78, my mother has shrunk to about 4’9”, but her arms, which show through the sleeves of her blue housecoat, are strong and muscled. With one hand, she easily holds the pestle of the molcajete, which is a hunk of black volcanic rock, in her hand. Mom begins mashing the onions. The air grows spicy and my eyes water, again.

“Because it’s true.”

My mother sighs. Once the onions are mushy, she stops and searches through her pockets. She is looking for her cigarettes, a habit she kicked five years ago; this is a sign that she is very upset. “I don’t know what to do with you two,” my mother says. She grinds a garlic clove into the onions and then adds some chopped tomatoes and cilantro. She stops mashing once the salsa turns chunky and runny. “Always such fighting, such jealousy,” she mutters over and over as she washes her hands in the sink, rinses them on a pink dishcloth, and then steps outside. In the yard, we see our mother walking up and down the rows of corn, tomatoes, and a tall, yellow sunflower.

“What was that?” I say, as I stare out the window. The coffee has finished brewing and I pour some in a cup. It tastes of cinnamon and chocolate.

“Oh, you know Mom. She won’t admit the truth.”

“What do you mean?”

“Oh come on!” Angelica, though she is weak, thumps the dough with the heel of her palm. “Mom loves you best. It’s always been that way, ever since you were born.”

“What?” I am amazed by my sister’s belief. Surely it’s just another of her fantasies. I watch as my mother slowly shuffles up and down the sidewalk, her white Keds small and childlike. I realize Mom didn’t deny Angelica’s claims. My sister continues hitting the dough, punching and slapping it. Tears are running down her face. I wonder if I should tell her that Mom loves us equally, that we are both her daughters. But then I would be lying. Secretly, I’ve always suspected my mother loved me more. I was carefree and simple. Easy to love. As a child, I was happy with a ham sandwich at lunch, playing in the sun after school and watching TV late at night. Angelica never was. She questioned everything. She wanted to know why we didn’t have as nice of a house as the Brady Bunch kids, why my mother’s hands were always so rough, why my father never wore a suit.

“I knew it,” Angelica says. She rips a paper towel from a roll on the table and blows her nose. “I knew she always loved you better, but why did she have to be so obvious about it?”

“I don’t know.”

“Yes, you do. You guys were always giggling together, sharing stories, going shopping just for fun. She never was like that with me.”

At these accusations, I remain silent. They are true. My mother and I have a comfortable relationship, frequently laughing together like girlfriends. We will phone each other just to gossip, sometimes watch novelas together. I cannot remember Angelica ever joining in this. No wonder she hates me. At this moment, I dislike myself.

“I’m sorry.”

“Stop it!” she shouts. “Don’t you feel sorry for me. Don’t you do that.”

“Okay.”

“It’s not your fault. You’re just simple.”

“What? You make me sound like a piece of white bread or something.”

Angelica places a flattened-out piece of masa onto the comal. As it browns, she looks at me. She sniffs. “I like that you’re ... not complicated. You don’t try to change everything. You accept me.”

“You’re hard,” I say.

“I know. I’ve always been like this. Some people like it, some don’t.” My sister scoops up more dough and begins shaping. Her breath comes out in rapid huffs. “Everyone is always trying to make me more likeable. Nicer. But I’m just me, you know? I can’t stop it.”

“I know.”

“You’re just like Marty,” Angelica says referring to her laidback husband. “Gloria, you accept things you can’t change. Not like Mom. She still thinks I should be just like her.”

“Mom loves you, you know.”

“I know. It’s not your fault, Gloria. You know that, right?” She places another tortilla onto the comal. We stand and watch it sizzle. Angelica has easily mastered the art of tortillas, while I have failed. Yet I have gained insight into my sister’s tortured psyche. “I just wanted us to be sisters again. You know, like when we were kids.”

“You hated me,” I say.

“I did not. I resented you, but I didn’t hate you.” Angelica picks up the tortilla with her fingertips and flips it. She doesn’t flinch. The tortilla, like the others she has made, is beautiful. My mother and sister are so talented in the kitchen. “Well, maybe I did hate you a little. But all sisters do.”

Angelica continues patting a ball of dough. We are both quiet. I glance outside and see my mom sweeping the sidewalk that runs along the yard. We remain silent for several moments.

“I really suck at this, Angelica.” I pick up some masa and try to form it. “I’ll need a lot more lessons.”

“Oh God, Gloria. Are you sure?”

“Just a couple more lessons. A few more Saturdays should do it. Maybe I’ll bring atole.” I grin. My sister has always loved the thick, sugary drink.

Angelica’s caramel-colored face turns to me. She grins. “Do you think Mom is up for it? The lessons, that is.”

“She’ll complain, but secretly she’ll love it.”

“Poor Mom.”

“Is vanilla atole good? Maybe chocolate.”

“No, get vanilla,” she says. “Vanilla’s just right.”

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