Knowledge of the Heart (Making Tortillas with the Flower Princess)

This story starts here: Canta y No Llores (Once Upon a Time in Mexico)

And Chapter Two is here: Becoming “Teacher”

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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.”

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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.

Hola. I’m Liliana. Do you know how to make tortillas?”

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.

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To read the next part of this story, click here.

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47 responses to “Knowledge of the Heart (Making Tortillas with the Flower Princess)

  1. Another beautiful chapter!
    And I must completely agree that food tastes a lot better when it is prepared by hands, it is as tho somehow love from your heart magicaly goes into the dish like an ingredient.

    • Gracias! 😉

      Have you read the book Como agua para chocolate, or Like Water for Chocolate? It’s all about how the emotions of the chef flavor the food. I think you would love it!

  2. This should be filmed. Morgan Freeman as el señor. Saoirse Ronan as you. I command you to do a treatment.

    You’re not done, are you? That wasn’t the last chapter?

    Speaking of birds…(and this comment actually IS related to ornithology!) we’ve had some rare sightings of snowy owls on the beaches of New Jersey this winter. They’re they not nocturnal, as are most owls. They’re really beautiful!

    • See what I did there? Typo. I tried to warn you. Le Clown makes fun of me when I commit a typo. He mis-types my name as “Marak”. It’s a tic. I can’t help it. Some people smoke. Others watch Saw movies. I commit typing errors.

      • A) You casting Saoirse Ronan to play me raised many emotions, which went like this: Who is that? … Oh, she’s awesome, I love Hanna! … How the holy rollers do I pronounce her name?! … YouTube says SHEER-sha. SHEER-sha. Got it. … WINNING! (So thank you for that little mental escapade.)

        B) There are two more chapters. I keep being tempted to drop the last one, because it’s mostly bittersweet or maybe just plain sad, but it’s part of the story. So, two more. And I’ll be quoting you in the next one!

        C) I just looked up Snowy Owls and they are breath-taking. I would really like to see one in person. (In bird-son?)

        D) You are my new favorite commenter. Ssssh, don’t tell anyone I play favorites! But no pressure. I had to read your comment three times to find the dang typo, which I never would have noticed had you not pointed it out. Anyway, I’m not going to return the favor and list my flaws for you. You’ll have to figure them out for yourself!

        • I’m glad to hear that you’ve decided to run the final episode. What’s better than a bittersweet ending? Not much. Don’t you dare deny us.

          It is very rare to see snowy owls in this part of the country. They are arctic birds. (Raptors, to be specific.) Experts are baffled. It’s a good thing we blasted a giant hole in the ozone layer. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have these interesting weather patterns or broken migration routes.

          “In bird-son” = Tap, tap, tap. Is this mike on? I’m here all week. Tip your waitress.

          You have flaws? What flaws? You write gooder than most.

  3. I love the ten years left in the bath tub and of course the village built from flowers and the fact lilies made more money than beef. Brilliant. As for the princess… I hope she got her wish.

    • I really hope she did too. I found the prettiest stationary I could, and added some dried flowers inside the envelope. In retrospect, those “biological threats” may have meant the letter never made it through Customs… but we can hope.

    • I’m so glad that spoke to you! Liliana was a few years younger than I was, making her just twenty or so. The way she carried herself and saw the world was so marvelous.

    • I have a big bag of masa mix at home – the just-add-water kind – and I made my tortillas with a rolling pin and wax paper. It’s a compromise… I’ll never buy a press, but I still can’t get the hang of that darn circular patting motion to truly make them by hand!

      I’m glad Liliana brought you a smile. 🙂 I haven’t heard from her since I left over five years ago, but if I’m ever anywhere close to Ruiz Cortines again, I will go for a visit and see if she’s still there. I did learn while writing this article that her friend Braulio still heads the co-op and is now a master birding guide in his own right!

  4. Ah Water for Chocolate! When I read what Lilliana said about food tasting better when you work with your hands, I thought of that book (and that movie-ooo). I am always careful about my attitude and mood when I prepare food. 🙂

  5. “All he wants is to share their beauty so people understand why we have to keep wild spaces on the earth.” Such a simple-yet-profound truth. That, and “Food tastes better when you touch it.” Indeed, love and care transform everything they come in contact with.

    • It will make you happy to know that the co-op still exists, and has flourished enough to build an overnight cabin for visiting eco-tourists! They also have a restaurant now, and I just learned that Liliana is one of the cooks. 🙂

  6. Beautiful re-creation of the people — I really feel like I’ve gotten to know them a little bit. In Venezuela they make something called arepas, and it seems like it would be something easy to make, but I’ve tried and tried for many years to make them, and I just can’t do it.

    • Oh, that makes me happy. And, would you believe, I ate my first arepa last week! It was delicious, and I can see how reproducing it exactly would be trickier than expected. I feel the same way about chiles rellenos.

  7. Very lovely, Jennie. I could smell the masa from here, with the slap, slap that comes from experienced hands moving the dough from warm palm to warm palm…aged skin pressing into the tortilla…marking it like a blessing.

    I have made tortillas, and they aren’t easy. They do stick like mad, and even with the press, it’s a bit tricky. Best left to those who work by feel, by spirit. Knead out of want and love and to share the bread of life.

    As you share here. The light and vibrancy come off the page in a magnificent manner, and allows us to rest at it’s cool water. I hope that the flower lady got that letter. If not, I wonder where it lies?

    Blessings,
    Paul

    • Oh, I can tell you know all about handmade tortillas. They really do taste better! I absolutely love your description of kneading out of want and love. Thank you so much for your kind words – this story sits especially close to my heart. And I also like to believe that Liliana received her letter, and has it tucked away somewhere. I used the prettiest stamp I could find, knowing how much she loves flowers. 🙂

  8. Oh Jennie! How marvelous. Did you feel like you were living in a childhood fantasy? Were you overwhelmed by the generosity of the people? The graciousness of the old man, his connection to the earth and to people, must have been a transformative experience for you.

    • I like the way you phrased that! I completely believe that, in certain places, Mexico is almost a playground for people with a sense of childlike wonder. It’s this heart-expanding mixture of the ancient and modern, education and superstition, religion and magic. And yes, it’s true what people say – the folks I met in Mexico, by and large, took exceedingly good care of me. I was invited into strangers’ homes, given their best food, and offered presents, over and over again. I think, to some degree, people are very good to each other because many of them have more basic, simple lifestyles, and know that at the end of the day your relationships with other people are what give your life value and color.

  9. Yennie… I keep forgetting that J is replaced by Y so often in Spanish, but, it makes perfect sense, considering that the Anglo-Germanic J is pronounced as Y anyways. (I’m of primarily Danish heritage.) Así que me llama Yonatán en español.

    • Hello! Welcome to ToMT! 🙂

      I’ve always had a soft spot for the J sound in Spanish… Yonatán has a certain flair, don’t you think? But my best friend Jess always hated it… the word came out sound a lot like “hoss.”

      • *sigh* Yeah, some names don’t translate too well. I’ve noticed that most of them still tend to be biblical, i.e. many still follow the practice of naming for the saints, or pick another Biblically-oriented name. Like… Cimmy and I met a girl named Genesis, so her nickname was “Hene”.

        • I always thought I’d like to name my hypothetical kids something that would translate perfectly, at least from English to Spanish. Easier said then done, though!

          • I think that’s what my baby sister is doing, sort of. Her husband is of Peruvian-Italian background, and so her kids have Hispanic names, although her son is named after a prominent family member– Rey Pratt, who has an entry in Wikipedia. He is our great-grandfather. (It’s just “Rey”, not short for “Reyenaldo”.)

            Much like me, though, she gives her kids nicknames to refer to them online, so my niece is “Chiquita” and my nephew is “Chato”.

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