This story starts here: Canta y No Llores (Once Upon a Time in Mexico)
And Chapter Two is here: Becoming “Teacher”
In the land of San Andres Tuxtla, amid a riot of green and a tumble of rivers, the village of Ruiz Cortines perches atop a dormant volcano. It is a place of excessive rain and strong winds, but life flourishes there. And so does the Princess Liliana.
I first wandered into this fairyland with my partner, Julio, who wanted to meet the members of a local ecotourism co-op and discuss all matters bird-related. While he was planning future trips to spy on Keel-billed Toucans and Ornate Hawk-eagles, I – already feeling enchanted by the marvelous names of the birds – stepped onto the dirt road through town.
After a few minutes, I found myself outside a rather grand white house with a high fence all around it. Flourishes and tendrils of plants peeked over the top of the gate like flags, and I smiled at the thought of a Mexican secret garden. Suddenly, my daydream was interrupted with a cheery shout of, “Venga!”
“Come in, come in, you must be the American who travels with the bird-man, am I right?” Of course he was, and as my elderly host creaked his garden gate open, he informed me that his son Braulio was the unofficial leader of the co-op. “My wife and I have been expecting you, my dear!”
This kind old man led me inside his palace to meet the queen, who was regal in a checked purple apron. She served me warm chicken stew and told me how proud she was that her son was putting their village on the map of the world. “The birds are everything for him,” she said. “All he wants is to share their beauty so people understand why we have to keep wild spaces on the earth.”
After lunch, el señor offered me a tour of his flower beds. Within minutes, my hands were overflowing with snips of leaves and petals as he, wizard-like, explained the properties of each plant: which ones could heal, which ones could kill, and which ones made a refreshing summer tea. “Sometimes, on very hot days, I fill an old metal tub with cold water and leave these herbs to soak in the sun. Then I strip naked – yes, me, old as I am – and I submerge myself completely and hold my breath as long as I can. The herbs do their work, and I leave ten years floating in the bath water.”
Later, we walked together to check on our bird-men, and found them utterly engrossed with an encyclopedia of wild species. “I’ve seen this one here – it has a nest!” “There’s no way – you must be near-sighted! That one never flies this far south!” In other words, they were completely overjoyed with each other, and so my host asked whether I would like to take a tour of the village on horse back.
Clump, clump, clump. The sweet brown mare plodded along as my guide held her reigns loosely in one hand. With the other, he made a sweeping gesture that encompassed all the fields surrounding his tiny town. “We are a village built from flowers,” he declared. “Once upon a time, we kept cattle, but they are bad for the environment. What’s more, you get much more profit per pound for day lilies than you do for beef, and the whole endeavor smells much better!”
“In fact,” he continued, “We have a few houses here that are really, truly built from flowers. Would you like to see?” Minutes later, he was helping me down from Buena Suerte‘s broad back, and I waved goodbye as he led his good-luck horse back home. Then I turned and took in a small purple house with walls covered in exuberant flowers and succulents. Someone had, with great care, nailed and wired dozens of ceramic pots, plastic milk jugs, and tin canisters to the wooden boards, and that someone was now smiling gently at me from her doorway.
Even with Liliana’s patient instruction, I was hopeless when it came to pressing balls of masa into perfect circles. It is possible, of course, to buy a metal tortilla press to do this work for you, but Liliana and her family would have scorned such a device even if it hadn’t been a luxury. “Pssssh! Food tastes better when you touch it, you know.”
Liliana kindly let me mangle a few more tortillas, and giggled when I gave up after absentmindedly smearing some dough into my hair. I was happier just watching her work in silence, creating the most essential of foods with the beautiful rhythm of her fingertips. And that was when she really made me fall in love with her:
“Yennie, don’t worry that you can’t make tortillas yet. It is not something you learn just through watching. It is something our mothers teach us, which our hands remember because the knowledge lives in our hearts.”
Before I left the little lavender house, Liliana wrote her address on an old receipt. I guarded it carefully for the next year, and finally penned her a letter when I was back home in North Carolina. She had told me she always wanted to receive mail from abroad. Given that the address involved “leaving the letter with the woman in the general store,” and because I never heard back, I am unsure whether Liliana got her wish. Still, she will always live on in my mind as the wise-hearted princess of Ruiz Cortines, a benevolent ruler in the land of tortillas and flowers.
To read the next part of this story, click here.