Sunday, December 22, 2013

"Caminante, No Hay Puentes, Se Hace Puentes Al Andar" -- "Voyager, There Are No Bridges, One Builds Them As One Walks"

It's Winter Solstice . . . 

In the winter, the El Chaparro restaurant looks nondescript on the outside.  
Yesterday’s winter solstice reminded me of El Chaparro’s Restaurant here in Lincoln, Nebraska.  I was at El Chaparro a few years ago during solstice. El Chaparro’s is one of the few restaurants in town that stays open until 2a.m.  On that shortest day of the year, we weren’t sleeping, we didn’t want to stay home, so we went to El Chaparro. 

About the time we were being served their wonderful tacos and fajitas, I noticed a very large passenger bus arriving.  In a few minutes, travelers filled up the restaurant quickly and transformed the sleepy, quiet restaurant into a bustling, chatter and laughter filled space. There was an air of lightness, of contentment from the travelers.  A family of five were seated near our table.  The woman holding a baby said hello and told us she loved the tacos here.  “Where are you going?” I asked her.  “Back home.  To Mexico.”

I hadn’t really noticed until she said, “back home . . . Mexico” that everyone looked to me like familia, like mi tio Pepe, tio Armando, like tia Chala, prima Ana.  Everyone was speaking in Spanish and I suddenly felt like “home” was all around me in the broadest sense of the word.    

The woman kept rocking the baby and seemed very comfortable talking with us, so I ventured a more personal question:  “Where were you coming from?” At that point she informed us that the bus’s passengers were migrants.  They had finished the fall harvesting in Illinois, and Wisconsin.  Now they could go home until the spring.  When spring comes, she explained, they take the bus again coming up through Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska—with a stop again right here at El Chaparro. 

“And the bus driver knew to bring you here!” I said. 
“Oh yes,” she laughed.  “This is a perfect place to stop on the way home.” 

A perfect place:  El Chaparro in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Here we are in the middle of the country, eating at a restaurant owned by a family whose origins are also Mexican.  And the food here is authentic.  The tacos are small palm-size corn tortillas.  They fill them with chicken, carne asada, chorizo, lengua (tongue), carnitas, fish.  Onion, cilantro, and limes are also ingredients.  When my mother has come to visit, the first thing she asks for is a taco de lengua from El Chaparro. 

Tacos "Guerrero" style at El Chaparro
I had come to this restaurant not only for the food, but because it serves a very diverse community, and that night, its guests had made the restaurant a rich immigrant experience.  Unlike the usual restaurant experience where people keep to themselves, here people were holding conversations between and among many tables.  And it wasn’t because they had known each other before.  Many had just met as fellow travelers.  One elderly man told me that he continues to follow the migrant season because he has always loved the work. Some told me they eventually wantted to stay in the U.S. while others wanted to return to Mexico for good.  “It’s all about the economy:  what Mexico does, what Norte America does,” said another.

Sandra Sanchez moved here with her family almost 15 years ago.  They immediately set up El Chaparro restaurant after working for someone else in the California area.  

Amelia M.L. Montes and Sandra Sanchez at "El Chaparro" restaurant

They’ve been very happy here and business is good.  Sanchez is one of five sisters and ten brothers. One of those ten brothers, Ruben, led the way in starting the business.  The Sanchez family are originally from Guerrero, Mexico—almost 2,000 miles away.  And now they have made their home Nebraska.  Yet, not all 15 siblings have stayed.  Five of them have returned to Mexico.  The rest, says Sandra—are very happy here in Lincoln, Nebraska.

El Chaparro kitchen area
“Caminante, no hay puentes, se hace puentes al andar,” wrote Gloria Anzaldúa.  Translation:  “Voyager, there are no bridges, one builds them as one walks.”

So on this solstice weekend, I salute Sandra and her familia who continue to serve us El Chaparro’s authentic Guerrero dishes.  And I wish safe travels to the migrants en route to Mexico as I write these words, as you read them.  Longer days, more light is ahead.  Saludos to you all.

Cactus on side of El Chaparro building

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