My name is Brianka Rainford and with my family being from Panama, I find the comparison of Hispanic cultures to be particularly fascinating. There are so many similarities and differences when it comes to food, culture, and values. I have traveled to a few Hispanic countries and territories including Peru, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico and being able to experience the differences in cultures has led me to become aware of what makes my own culture unique.
The anthropological study that I am conducting is an in-person interview with my friend Evelyn Nicole Valencia Enriquez whose mother is from Mexico City, Mexico and father is from Usulutan, El Salvador. This study also contains a bit of participant- observation, and comparison. Having been to Mexico for a friend’s quinceañera, I was interested in finding out how the culinary traditions from the restaurants that we often ate at compared to the more home-style food. She has often explained to me how her family has learned to incorporate traditions from both countries into their daily life, including cuisine. The cultures are so intertwined in her house, that her mother often makes many Salvadorian dishes for the family. Evelyn recently traveled to Mexico and I asked her to describe a meal in which she felt connected to her family and her Mexican heritage. Evelyn first started to explain the environment of this meal. “My grandmother lives in an apartment complex in Mexico City, Mexico. Out of ten children, five of them live in the same apartment complex with all of their own children and grandchildren. My grandma lives close to the entrance with most of her family surrounding her.” The meal that she describes is familial. There are generations upon generations of family members coming together to eat and connect every Sunday after Mass.
She states “my grandmother makes a bunch of food, usually meat of some sort, and everyone else will bring a side when we all eat together. If we were making tacos, for instance, my grandmother would make the taco meat, and someone else would bring the salsa, someone else the tortillas, someone else the rice, and so on until we had a whole meal fit for the family.”
While the food is being prepared, Evelyn explains that there is an “open courtyard in the middle of the apartment complex that is used as a place for children to play and adults to gather and gossip. On the other side of the apartment complex, there is a large rectangular table with a ‘mantel’ (tablecloth) on it at all times. When the table is not in use, the family often sit on it and converse with other family members or friends.” The use of the table as a space to congregate even without food on it shows how influential the table is to communication and familial bonding.
One thing that I found to be familiar in my own culture and many others around me is the incorporation of religion into every meal. Evelyn reminds me of this when she said: “before eating, the entire family first prays over the food with my grandmother reciting the prayer.” In my own household, it is also the oldest family member that often recites the prayer or someone near the top of the family hierarchy such as an uncle. She then goes to explain how the table is set up. “When it is time to eat, the teenagers and young adults will help set up the table with food and silverware while the adults continue to talk and the children continue to play. Plates and silverware surround the food on the table and everyone sits to eat. Parents serve the children and everyone scrambles for a seat close to the middle to be closer to all of the food. Usually, everyone serves themselves, but because we were visiting from America and we hardly see Mimi (her grandmother) she served my sister and me.” As my family often eats buffet style when we are in large numbers, I asked Evelyn to explain how the food is served and where it was eaten, thinking that her family’s style was similar to mine. She explained that when everyone is sitting down around the table, plates are passed from one side to the other so that food from the other side of the table can be placed onto the plates. Food is used as an opportunity to communicate and in Mexico, it is no different, “while eating, everyone speaks to one another about their day, experiences and just regular chisme (gossip).”
“When we finish the meal, Mimi offers coffee to the family because someone has brought Conchas (sweet bread). The children often do not eat the conchas and instead they continue playing, while everyone else grabs a concha and coffee and then separate into their respective age groups to continue to converse and gossip. Then much like set up, the teenagers and young adults clean up the entire table” Evelyn said. “The idea of the younger generation helping with the setup and clean up comes from much enforced cultural value of respect for elders.” As important as this mindset is in my own culture, the young adults often do not help with set up or clean up. It is usually left to the adults to cook, set the table, and clean up afterward. When I asked Evelyn why the children do not help, she stated: “children are useless because everything is ceramic, their purpose is to look cute.”
As hilarious as her last statement was, from that one conversation, I learned so much about the way that her dining table is used in Mexico. That one table must have a history of so many traditional meals and will hopefully experience many more. It has seen the welcoming of new family members and the passing of others but yet the meals remain a constant facet of the Enriquez-Romero family.