Sunday, May 24, 2015

Memorial Day Tribute to Mi Papa

La mano de mi papa sobre la mia
Mi papa was born in Topeka, Kansas. He liked to tell me (and anyone else who wanted to know) that he was actually contraband from Mexico because he was conceived in Mexico, and when his parents made the journey to settle in Topeka, his mother was pregnant with him. He spent his early years in Topeka surrounded by cornfields, cactus, various crop fields. His mother cultivated a garden too.  His experiences in the fields stayed with him. Many years later, in Colorado, he taught me how to carefully take the thorns off cactus paddles, clean, and cut them into slices for cooking. 

Removing thorns from a cactus paddle
When we lived in Los Angeles, mi papa told me Topeka, Kansas stories about helping neighboring farmers by collecting huitlacoche, a black fungus that grows on corn.  The word huitlacoche (pronounced wheat-la-KO-che) is Nahuatl—from the Aztecs. My father would tell me, “The anglo farmers in Topeka considered huitlacoche a problem. They even gave huitlacoche a derogatory term, calling it ‘corn smut.’”  Little did they know that huitlacoche is packed with the amino acid, lysine, which strengthens bones, builds muscle, fights infections, and keeps human skin soft and supple.  Instead, the anglo farmers cringed when they saw the black fungus on the corn.  My newly immigrant grandmother knew better, and told my father to offer the farmers help by taking their “corn smut” away. I’ve eaten huitlachoche with my father in Mexico City and in the U.S.  It is a delicacy, like truffles, and quite delicious. Perhaps the healthy diet my father ate contributed to his living a very long life:  97 years. 

Mi papa died a little over two months ago on March 15, 2015. I am memorializing him here, the day before Memorial Day, because, in addition to the many things he did in his 97 years, he fought in the Second World War (WWII).

According to Veteran’s Administration statistics, of the 16 million who served in WWII, only about 855,070 are still living.  By 2036, all will have died. Between 250,000 and 500,000 Latinos fought in this war, and some of them were given U.S. citizenship only after the war was over.

Unlike the childhood and young adult stories my father told me with humor and wit, when he talked about WWII, his storytelling was different.  He spoke in halted breath, he would pause, and sometimes I felt compelled to hold his hand while he held back tears. The day he was shot, he was with his company.  He told me he was grateful that he wasn’t alone. His fellow soldiers were able to get the wounded to combat medics right away.  There was shrapnel in my father’s leg, other surface wounds.  He had been carrying a backpack and a front pack too.  One of the medics began taking out what was in his front pack. Earlier that day, my father had arranged small cans of food in his front pack for easy access. It was there that the medic took out a can that had a bullet hole on one side, and the actual bullet lodged on the other. “You are lucky,” the medic said. “Good you packed your lunch today.”  He was wounded again a few months later. A few months after that, he was honorably discharged, finishing his service career with two purple hearts and four bronze service stars. This is only one of a few stories he told me, but I will never know all the horrible things he saw in Europe. 

I leave you, then, with these two short stories mi papa told me, both involving food: the food he learned to cultivate, prepare, and eat, thanks to his Mexican immigrant mother, and the can of food that saved his life one afternoon during WWII. 

Mi papa removing thorns from a cactus paddle


Lori Rennings said...

Your papi was gentle, wise, and courageous. I'm so sorry for your loss, Amelia.

Olga said...

I loved reading about this Contraband nopal-peeling huitlacoche-eating soldado de la vida. 97 years--wow. Love to you, querida Amelia.

Pat said...

Thank you for sharing this beautiful memorial of your Papi.

Judy Bertonazzi said...

Thank you for sharing these stories of your Papi. I'm sorry for your loss, but also happy to know about your Papi through your post. He was a remarkable man.

Mary said...

Great story of a good man. Thanks for writing and sharing. You carry his legacy the way he carry those cans.

Sheri Barber said...

I am so glad you had a close and meaningful relationship with your Father. He left a wonderful legacy in you.