Albion Through My Eyes / Nicolás Dumit Estévez Raful
Mexico in the Midwest
The first image that catches my sight upon arriving in Albion while walking along Superior is the sign for Lopez Taco House. The Spanish stickler in me urges me to get up on a tall ladder and add the accent missing on the ó in Lopez, but my curiosity as to what this place is all about wins over my inner grammarian. I let go of accents and peek inside the Mexican restaurant. The red neon light glowing around the window makes my face blush. Coming from New York City, where the Mexican presence as a large and visible community is a relatively new occurrence of which I became aware of in the early ’90s, it is difficult to comprehend it on what resembles a diner sign from the ’50s or ’60s in Albion. On a later stroll on I-94, as I head to Jolly Green Junction, I pass La Casa Mexicana, and little by little I start to tie some loose threads together. Then I meet Juanita Solís Kidder on a warm fall afternoon and that is when Brownsville, Texas, shows up in our conversation. I have been there, I say! Juanita mentions that while going to school in this southern state of the Union, the first day of class children were asked as to where they were born. When she named Albion as her cradle, both teacher and pupils looked at her in amazement. Albion? Where is that? I eventually get to meet Daniel Lopez, the owner of Lopez Taco House, and guess what? His family too is from Brownsville!
Cristobal Solís and I correspond through text before we meet at Stirling. He appears in a stylish hat, wearing a silver moustache and a wide smile. I immediately feel completely at home with him and we talk for hours. Coffee, coffee, tea, and the Texas Valley where I had been in 2011 with Reverend Daisy Machado, then the Dean at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York. My trip with Reverend Machado to both sides of the borderland entailed visits to groups and communities that are working towards making a difference in the region: the maquiladora workers (factory workers) who are seeking fair treatment at their jobs, the dreamers who would like to join the workforce and gain a permanent status in the U.S., the union leaders ensuring the labor code is enforced, the religious figures offering support to their congregations, and even those who have come to the Lone Star State from as far as the Caribbean to lend a hand in the enactment of compassion no matter where people in need come from. The dialogue between Cristobal and I starts in English and switches slowly to Spanish. I am excited to ask him so many questions as to how the migratory movement from Brownsville to the Midwest took place. This of course, unravels the subjects of braceros (Mexican workers who as far back as the ’40s traveled to the U.S. to do seasonal work), as well as some of the U.S. born people with Mexican roots who harvested crops such as red beets, onions, strawberries and tomatoes, among others, and moved back and forth between the south and the north. Cristobal, a U.S. born citizen from what he humorously calls the Republic of Texas, arrived in Albion in the ’60s, as a young man, and the story goes that he came to help his grandmother return to Texas, where she was from, and ended up finding a job in one of the foundries, and so he stayed in an economically bustling town.
The Mexican experience in the United States is indeed a complex one. It involves those connected to the pioneer Spanish-Mexican settler families with links to the Americas and to Spain. There are also the U.S. citizens of Mexican descent, the native groups who were either born in the U.S. and who have been here for centuries in what was once Mexican territory and was then annexed to the U.S., and Mexicans who have immigrated to our country in more recent times. Dulce Aceves, a young person from Los Angeles, who is studying at a nearby table from where Cristobal and I are talking animatedly, hears our Spanish and soon joins us. Before we know it, we are in Mexico, mentally, talking about tamales, tortillas, mole, Mexico City, Puebla, and Albion too. Dulce is pursuing an anthropology degree at the College and happens to be involved as well in the music scene. Our chat about Mexican food in town makes me realize the level of entrepreneurship informing all of this. Several doors away from where Dulce, Cristobal, and I are talking, María confirms this in tangible ways through the restaurant that she is opening on Superior. The day I visit, she lets me glimpse into it and uncovers two or three pool tables for me to see. She then shows me with great pride the booths being assembled and the built-in furniture along a wall that will accommodate food for large groups. María keeps checking upgrades to the space, making it a challenge to ask questions. But in the few moments that she stops to catch her breath for a second, I get to spot the great courage in this woman. I gather that she comes not from the Valley, like many in Albion, but from the artistic state of Morelia. I tell her in one sentence about my visits to beautiful Pátzcuaro, one of Mexico’s pueblos mágicos, magic towns, and the tiny island of Janitzio, where the day of the dead is celebrated. Soon enough, she is busy again and I have to give up and leave! But her musical way of speaking English hangs in my ears past my short stop to her upcoming business.
María’s melody prepares me for a conversation with Sylvia Benavidez about her father Gilberto Benavidez, during which she tells me how much he loved to sing in Spanish while gardening. His voice was a source of joy to his neighbors. Gilberto was born in Harlingen, Texas, and moved to Albion in the ’60s, like many others, to work at the foundry. He was a devout man who did his Christian ministry through a radio station, and who would visit churches beyond his own, the Lutheran Church, with the intention of being in community through his ecumenical vision. Gilberto thought that it was important for him to be present in how others around him worshiped, and so he joined them.
I meet Rosie Maza Spratley while looking for her tamales. They are recommended by several people in town, so missing them during my time in Albion is not an option. I stop by the FoodHub and she greets me at the door, pointing me to a space where I can order and sit. I ask about her vegetarian options and she tells me about the bean and sweet potatoes tamales, which I end up taking home to savor slowly, one per day. Has she made sweet tamales? My question leads to a date when we get together to modify her recipe, adding sugar, cinnamon and vanilla to it. We use turmeric powered to give the masa, the dough, a golden color, and fill the tamales with cream made from coconut milk and other ingredients. The result is a batch of vegan and gluten free sweet tamales that we invite people in town to sample, together with thick hot cocoa and cold Jamaica water made from hibiscus flowers. Cooking with Rosie at the FoodHub entails sharing stories about our past jobs as teachers of young children and exchanging ideas for dishes. All of this happens as we wash a mountain of pots and pans and get ready for those who arrive at 2 pm to have our afternoon snack. By 2:30, the eating space is filled with laughers and friendship. Rosie and I run back and forth from the kitchen to the tables making sure neighbors have a hot or cold drink and one of the tamales. Some guests use the cup of hot cocoa as a hand warmer. It is freezing outside. I am enthused by Rosie’s contribution to the revitalization of Albion’s downtown and commend her for this. I am equally happy to see that there are opportunities in town for small independent shop owners, and especially for women, and for business people of color to have a voice in the shaping of its emerging economy, something that is becoming quite rare in places like New York City. My intention is to go back to Rosie on Saturday, as a customer, to taste more of the items on her menu and to support her tasty endeavor.
The next day after cooking with Rosie, I have an appointment at Cass Street to make flour tortillas with Juanita and with Helen Fraley. Helen supervises our enterprise and tells us when we are done mixing that we must let the gluten in the batch relax for a few minutes. I roll the tortillas and Juanita cooks them in a pan. This tortilla dance takes coordination. The gluten can wait until nighttime to take a rest. We laugh wholeheartedly. Our afternoon ends with a culinary feast that obviously includes tortillas, filled with spinach and avocados together with other ingredients. For dessert we have sweet tamales left over from Rosie’s, and a hot cocoa. Sitting on the kitchen counter cooling are several bowls of the coconut and butternut pudding that we prepared as well. This is for Juanita and Helen to take home, and a pie dish of it is for Rosie to taste. Lots of cinnamon sprinkled on the top. The afternoon becomes night, Juanita and Helen leave and Michael Willet comes in. We have more tortillas for dinner and celebrate with much gratitude, as the day ends, the Mexican presence in town and its remarkable contributions to Albion.
Note: Next week will be my last piece for this column, as I will be returning to the Bronx, NY. I am very grateful for Kara and Michelle at The Recorder, and for all of the neighbors in Albion who have been reading this column week after week.