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18 Things I Learned From My Mexican Mother

by Amanda Machado Sep 19, 2015

1. No sacar los trapitos en el sol.

The number one thing every child of a Mexican mother should never do is publicize the family’s business. So, this article is probably the last thing my mother wants for Mother’s Day. Oops. Sorry, Mami.

2. In fact, your biggest fear in life must always be becoming a sinvergüenza.  

A Mexican-American friend of mine used to joke “Mexicans spend their whole lives fearing embarrassment.” A Mexican mother’s “Eres una sin vergüenza” stings so deeply that it will ingrain guilt as a basic function during your daily decision-making. Couple that with the hardcore Catholicism, and when it comes to a guilt-free existence, children of Mexican mothers don’t stand a chance.

3. If you are a lady, you must always be bien arregladita.

I spent a large portion of my adolescence running away from my mother who would chase me with curlers, gel, lotion, lip gloss- anything and everything to make me look decente. Every Christmas, a good chunk of my gifts seemed like hints and nudges towards things my mother thought I wouldn’t purchase on my own- purses, leather boots, a nail filing kit, a proper dress.

She claimed it was all about confidence: walking in heels with nice hair could actually make you believe in yourself. This past August, when I was invited to speak at a conference in South Africa, I tried out her advice: did my hair, wore stylish, black pumps, put on some mascara. I killed it. I got a job offer afterwards, and finally realized that even my stubborn, tomboy self can admit the perks to being bien arregladita once in a while.

4. One adjective doesn’t cut it; you must insult/shame/scold people in “threes.”

Whenever my room was a mess: “Cochina, fea, asquerosa.” Whenever I’d walk out of the house in an unironed shirt: “Que corriente, ordinaria, vulgar.”

5. “Boredom” doesn’t exist.

Bored as hell and feeling stuck inside the house?

“Pues ponte a limpiar.”

6. People with real work have no time for “boy drama.”

The first time my mother watched Sex and the City, she lasted about ten minutes before getting angry, and saying:

“Estas mujeres no tienen que hacer!”

My mother has no time for relationship complaining. With so many real problems in her life to deal with, the nuanced, sexual concerns of Manolo-Blahnik-wearing Manhattanites make absolutely no sense.

7. The worst thing you could be? A marihuano.

Tequila can cure a cold, and whiskey’s great for a stomach ache, but don’t you dare touch a joint in a Mexican household: “Que, no tienes abuela?”

 8. And expect no sympathy for the negative consequences of your poor decisions.

Her response after I mess up: “Ándale, bien hecho, por ser pendeja.”

9. Bad children are ones who leave home instead of taking care of their mother.

The Mexican version of the three little pigs- “Los Tres Cochinitos”- twists the story: the three pigs are not building houses necessarily but dreaming about what they believe will change their circumstances. One dreams of building himself a palace and act like a king. One dreams of building himself a sailboat to travel the world and leave his family for good. But the last pig- the most honorable and cherished of the three- dreams of devoting his life to building a sturdy house for his poor mother. Hidden messaging before bedtime? You bet.

10. You must value “haciendo cosas bien.

Ever the true Mexican woman, my mother believes highly in the quality of things.If my mother sewed a dress, it was going to be a show-stopper. If a button came undone from a jacket, her stitching was exquisite. If the porch needed pressure washing, she’d scour that shit until the entire floor was beaming white. My mother would not understand the notion of “half-assed”. For her, the only legitimate way of completing something is by doing it right.

11. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be thrifty or resourceful.

Making sure our things were beautiful didn’t always mean spending lots of money. She handmade the majority of our family’s Christmas ornaments. She sewed basically every curtain, pillowcase, table mat that decorated our windows, tables and beds. For my first communion, she designed and made my dress herself, modeling it right after Audrey Hepburn´s dress in Funny Face, complete with a bible case made from leftover fabric. The dress was the hit of the church.

12. At the end of the day, piojito cures all.

Conditioned by my mother, to this day, I still sleep exponentially better when someone runs their fingers through my hair before bed (Future husband: take notes).

13. So does a good Mexican meal:

“Estómago lleno, corazón contento.”

14. And good Mexican cooking need only consist of three simple ingredients.

All my life I revered my mother’s cooking, how in twenty minutes she could prepare a plate of picadillo, fajitas, or carne con papas that could change a mood, resolve a family feud, possibly create world peace. News of her meals eventually started causing neighbors to conveniently come over at six o’clock with hopes of having a shot at a dinner invitation.

So you can imagine my surprise (and relief!) at 22, when my mother finally wrote down all her famous Mexican recipes in a homemade cookbook that I could take with me to college that all her works of art boiled down to these three basic things: chile, salsa de tomate, and comino. No secret techniques needed, no Julia Child textbook required; just variations on jalapeños, tomato sauce and a ton of cumin and the masterpiece was complete.

15.You don’t have to let other people’s racism affect your sense of self.

As an immigrant to the States, my mother never really understood the complicated labels and notions of race in the States. She didn’t know whether to identify as “Latina” or “Hispanic” or neither, nor did she really understand why or how it mattered.

But during her first year working as a Spanish teacher at my old high school, students often called her “wetback” and “dirty Mexican”. One night, a group of students even slashed her tires. I was lived; my mother seemed unphased.  “No les dejes”, she’d always say to these kinds of things-“don’t allow them”. Without that reminder, I always forgot I had a choice.

16. When you travel, don’t underestimate the sacred power of a bendición, a lit candle, and a virgencita in your backpack.

Anytime I’d leave my mother for an extended period of time- a road trip, a vacation, even a sleepover- she wouldn’t let me leave the house until she gave me “la bendición” across my forehead. And the day before I traveled abroad for the first time, my mother gave me a tiny figurine of the Virgen de Guadalupe to keep inside my backpack. She made me promise that I’d keep it with me wherever I go for protection. That virgencita has now traveled with me for six years through thirty countries on five continents. And I’ve come home each time intact.

There’s more to it though than the virgencita. My mother also told me just this year that when I first decided to study abroad in South Africa, she went to the closest catholic church, lit a candle, and made a deal with God: “If you bring her back safe, I promise I’ll take her with me to the Basilica de Nuestra Virgen de Guadalupe in Mexico City (the church where it is believed she appeared originally) and light a candle there too.” Two years after I returned, we made the pilgrimage together, and she kept her word.

17. “Sí se puede” is no joke.

My mother came to this country at seventeen without knowing a lick of English, and graduated with honors from high school by doing her homework each night with a dictionary. She rose the ranks as an executive assistant at an airline company by studying the extra copies of business letters that other high-powered employees would leave in the copy room, and mimicking their vocabulary. After raising three kids, she went back to college and got her bachelor’s degree in Spanish literature at the age of 45. Last year, working as a high school AP Spanish Language teacher, over 80% of her students passed the AP exam. Her life story is my ultimate proof that Mexican ganas is alive and well.

18. At the end of the day, there are always subtle ways to say “I’m proud of who you are”, even if it’s not what a traditional Mexican daughter should be.

The day I took off on my year backpacking around the world, my mother gave me a gift: a money bag- the kind you put beneath your jeans to stash your extra cash and your passport- hand sewn by her of course, and made from the same fabric that used to drape mi cuna where I slept as a baby. She had saved the fabric for 24 years, waiting for the right time to use it. It came with a note “From birth to traveling the world!”

And then I knew that even if I’m a vagabonding twenty-seven year old woman, writing articles about the family’s trapitos sucios for a travel magazine, she still might be proud of me in her own special way.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mami linda. I love you dearly.


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