Las recetas de mi Amá: A cross-border research project on Mexican cuisine

March 24, 2023

Food encompasses entire cultures, regions, traditions, and histories. In January of 2022, I began to research the recipes of my family and others close to me. Most of my research focused on the people living in the border cities of San Luis Rio Colorado, Sonora, Mexico and San Luis, Arizona, United States. My initial goal was to document the culinary practices of these two border communities by interviewing men and women of different ages who have a connection to San Luis Rio Colorado, Sonora. However, as my research progressed, I realized that the most important aspect of this work was to document my family recipes to connect with them, to keep them throughout my life and to use them as reference for future generations. With that in mind, I set out to understand my family through their favorite language, food. The result of this work is a digital family recipe book titled, Las recetas de mi Amá.

San Luis, Arizona is located within Yuma County and only 30 minutes south of Yuma. The second largest population within Yuma County is Hispanic/ Latino. It is not a surprise given the proximity to the bordering country, Mexico. It is because of this that my food project relies on Mexican recipes that pertain to the Mexican population living on both, or either, sides of the border. 

The title of my virtual family recipe book, Las Recetas de mi Amá, was inspired by one of the best cooks I know, my maternal grandmother Graciela Barraza, or as I call her ‘Amá.’ As an individual, my grandmother does not express love or gratitude to her family members through words or physical affection. Her way to express her love is through food and her cooking. This led to her teaching my mother, Eris Ruiz, how to cook her family recipes and have the sazón needed to cook even a simple egg. I hope that through this recipe book, I too will learn how to cook just like my mother and my grandmother and, hopefully, I can teach future generations as well.

I am fortunate enough to talk about my relationship with both my grandmother and my mother. Now, in Mexico we have two different types of grandmas: the extremely loving grandmother or the grumpy grandmother. If you're from the northern part of Mexico, especially Sonora, you know that we Norteñas tend to be broncas, or tough. My Amá Graciela is perhaps the toughest person I know; not by her life experiences but tough as in how to get along with her. She is the typical grumpy grandmother who is constantly scolding everyone for no reason whatsoever. She judges people for their looks, their way of speaking, and for whatever reason she comes up with in the moment. At times it's funny, at other times it’s embarrassing, yet I’ve learned that at this point in her life there is no way she’ll change. But it is through her cooking that she communicates the best. She will never tell you she loves you or that she is proud of you, but she will make sure that when you visit, you are well fed and, hopefully, she has all the ingredients on hand to cook your favorite dish. She will not ask you about your personal life, but she will most definitely tell you if you want more to go in one of her Tupperware. You can ask her to teach you how to cook and she will agree, but she will insult you in the process, take over the cooking, and simply make you watch; her patience is almost nonexistent. My Amá Graciela has a lot of health issues and is constantly bedridden when she is recovering; however, I like to believe I am her best therapy because gets up and walks to the kitchen when she knows that I am cooking so that she can take over. She is a difficult person to handle yet it makes life interesting.

My Amá Graciela’s favorite ingredient is cumin. I think it is her secret to such savory food. Growing up, I would constantly ask for menudo on my birthday because I just loved it. Now, walking into her house and smelling menudo not only makes me happy but it also takes me back to when I was a child. In the recipe book, the one thing I enjoyed learning how to make was Pan de Mujer. This is a typical bread that she would bake with her family ever since she can remember. Usually, my grandmother bakes this during lent given that it is also used to create capirotada. It is something that I really wanted to learn how to make because it is my favorite kind of bread. There is nothing fancy about it; it’s just flour, salt, water, sugar, yeast, water, lard, and melted piloncillo that goes on top of the bread once it is baked. Baking this requires all the females in our family to gather to bake something full of nostalgia; it also gives them the perfect time for gossip. The kitchen smells so sweet and it is marvelous to eat the bread straight out of the oven piping hot. You can eat Pan de Mujer cold or hot, use it for other dishes…but for me, eating that bread is sharing a beautiful moment with my Amá Graciela. 

My Ma, Eris Ruiz, inherited my grandmother’s cooking skills. My mom can cook anything, and it is delicious. Although my mother is tough like my grandmother, she is not at the same level. Yes, if you ask her to teach you how to cook, she will help you, but she can sometimes lose her patience and ends up trying to cook everything herself. In my opinion, her best dish is Carne con Chile Colorado, which is basically meat with red peppers or chiles. She cooks it using different kinds of meats, like ribs, numerous spices, red peppers, salt, garlic, and pepper to name a few. To eat this, you can either have it in a bowl with cilantro and onion, a fork and tortillas, or you could simply make it into tacos.

I hope to learn how to cook as much as my Ma and Amá Graciela to carry on their legacies through cooking, which is what they do best. Whenever either of them cooks something, they make sure to save some for the other. It is, perhaps, the language that my mother uses to communicate with my grandmother. Cooking allows them to spend time together, arguing just a little about food and not something else. 

The greatest satisfaction behind this project was interacting with everyone that helped me through their cooking, learning about their lives and why they cook, and simply enjoying the activity with multiple people. As I was researching, more and more individuals joined or helped through the process. It was usually the same 5 people, but it helped us create a bigger bond between all of us. 

Las artes culinarias de México son extensas y llenas de cultura, haciéndolas un patrimonio de la humanidad. Por medio de este proyecto, no solo incluía el corazón de México sino también los secretos de mi familia por medio de su comida y como es en realidad la cultura en las ciudades fronterizas…un ‘país’ entre México y Estados Unidos.