Bessie F. Zaldívar

Doña Lucila’s Nacatamales


Bessie F. Zaldívar writes about the intersection of her Honduran and queer identity. She lives in Belleville, Illinois where she is getting her undergraduate degree in Creative Writing. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Salt Hill Journal, Bridge, Obra/Artifact, SHANTIH, and elsewhere. 

Instagram: @bfzaldivar

Twitter: @bessieflores

Doña Lucila holds her index finger to my face, again. It’s long and bonney, and like the rest of her hands and body, she can’t keep it from trembling. Ringing the middle of her distal phalanx is a deep, ugly scar. Because it’s only a few inches from my nose, I can smell the red onions and olives she chopped earlier.

“Esta cicatriz es mas vieja que usted,” she tells me, again, “this scar is older than you.” She has told me the story twice in the past hour.

She got it using a meat grinder when she was eight years old. It was the first time she had to cook nacatamales. Her mother owed a woman who sold nacatamales in their pueblo year-round, and as a payment, she offered her daughter’s full-time help. At the end of each labor day, which is every day, the woman gave eight-year-old Doña Lucila one nacatamal out of the hundreds she had helped cook. This time, of course, we bought ground meat at the supermarket, we’re eating them, not selling them, and we’re not planning on doing more than 20. There’s also no child-labor involved. Different times.

In our short assembly line, I’m the washer of plantain leaves. Doña Lucila, Maria Elena’s abuela, who insists I call her Abuela too, is the constructor, adding the pork, diced potatoes, olives, and two doughs onto the washed leaves and sealing them, like one would a present into a perfect, bulky rectangle. Maria Elena then places them in the boiling pot and tries to make sure her abuela doesn’t forget any of the components. Maria Elena tells me that Doña Lucila’s mind has been slipping more than the usual lately, and that it’s a damn shame that no one thought to learn how to make nacatamales from her before the recipe and thousand others (torrejas, rosquillas en miel, semitas) became forever lost, locked away in her waning memory. She can still do them, but she can’t tell them how to do them. Procedural memory, I suppose.

I’ve already been sent to the pulperia three times for random ingredients she suddenly recalled. Two of the trips being back-to-back. To be fair to Maria Elena, I keep volunteering to be the pulperia-errand-runner. I’m nervous about being left alone with her abuela. Or, more like, I’m nervous about her abuela being left alone with me. Whenever Maria Elena has to run to the second floor for something or take a bathroom break, she turns to me and says, “watch her, don’t let her break anything or use the stove.”

Watching an 84-year-old is harder than all the other watching tasks I’ve been given in a lifetime, and as the eldest sibling, I’ve been given a few. It’s nothing like when Mami tells me to watch las tortillas, los frijoles, my little brother while he plays in restaurant playgrounds, or her purse while she goes to the bathroom. It’s an active watching. And, because I can’t seem to make peace with any form of silence stewing between the 84-year-old and me, it is also a task of active conversing. Just in the past couple hours, I’ve already heard multiple times the same two stories: the one about her scar and another about the bruja that lived in her pueblo, how it was rumored she could turn into a bird at night, and once offered to kill a neighbor with whom abuela had a running feud. Again, different times.

But the only times-changing related issue in my mind, the only one I’m dying to hear Doña Lucila’s opinion on, yet mortified to, is that of her granddaughter dating a girl. That girl being, me.

Normally, Maria Elena and I wouldn’t even bother to come out to anyone, especially not someone over the age of thirty. This is not Miami or Los Angeles. In this city, there are no pride parades. Once, I saw a rainbow painted on the outer white wall of a preschool and turned to my mother and said how cool it was they supported gay rights. She immediately corrected me, asserting it was nothing of the sort, that it’s clearly meant to reference God’s promise to Noah from the Ark to never destroy the world with water again. That’s right, in this backward time-hole of a city, it is the Christians, not the gays, who own the rainbow. Go figure.

While down in Argentina, same-sex marriage has been legal for almost ten years, and up in the U.S for a little less, the center of the American continent, the heart of the New World, per say, remains stuck in other times. We’re in Central America. Specifically, we’re in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, officially among the deadliest countries for LGBT+ folk. No one in my own family even knows about me.

But Elena insisted it was important for her that Abuela knew. I would be lying if I said I understand. I mean, Abuela was clearly a force of nature at some point. I can see it in her brown, tough hands that remind me of crumpled brown paper bags. The meat grinder scar is but a speck; a single dust mote floating in the sunlight of a lifetime of hardships, not nearly as rare as finding a black hair in her gray, thick mane that she wears tightly pulled back. Elena has told me the stories of Abuela walking dozens of miles daily, barefoot, selling bread and lottery tickets. I don’t doubt she was at some point a hardcore badass, but today, Abuela is a shell of the woman she used to be. She repeats the same stories every ten minutes, she forgets where she sets down plates, she can’t even remember my name. She calls me “la muchacha,” the girl. I’m almost a hundred percent sure that if Maria Elena comes out to her today, she’ll forget by tomorrow. Which should help me relax a little bit, but somehow, I’m still on edge.

Whenever there’s a silence a heartbeat too long between the three of us, and I hear Elena suck in air as she parts her lips, I feel my body tighten, certain this is it. This is when she brings it up. And then she doesn’t. We start talking about something else again, joining our voices with the cacophony of noises proper to Teguz.

Outside, I can hear car engines coming to life and the incessant barking of dogs. One of the neighbors has their TV or radio turned way up, and I recognize the voices of two local news anchors discussing the increasing price of gasoline that has ruled newspapers’ front pages for the past month and the zero-tolerance policy now in effect at the American border. The smell of plantain, lime juice, and red onions is overwhelming, making my eyes itch and water.

I try to imagine how the three of us must look together, the way an overhead camera shot might capture us, huddled in the small, square kitchen. I know that if anything looks out of place, like it could be plucked directly out of the frame, it’s me. Elena’s skin color is similar to that of Abuela’s, golden brown, minus the harshness. Her scarlet red-dyed hair which usually falls straight under her breasts is wrapped in a lazy bun. She catches me staring and smiles, raising an eyebrow, the most noticeable feature of her face. They’re thick, bushy, yet well defined. They look straight out of the cover of one of those American magazines with unpronounceable names. She doesn’t even paint them.

Both Abuela and Elena are thin and tall, they move with purpose and confidence in the kitchen, and, to be fair, nearly everywhere else. I, on the other hand, am not even sure I’ve been washing these leaves properly. My light, pale skin is already flushed from the heat coming off the boiling pot. My curly black hair has significantly frizzled in the past hour, and I know the elastic hairband on my wrist is no longer strong enough to hold it.

“Y usted cuantos años es que tiene mija?” Abuela asks me, not for the first time, about my age, as I hand her another seaweed-green plantain leaf.

“Nineteen, cumplo los 20 en Julio,” I tell her. I don’t mind going over the same conversation ten times if it means avoiding the big talk. I don’t feel like having things change, and I can’t shake the feeling that once someone else knows about us, everything will change.

Although, I suppose age is one of the hundred thousand things that can contribute to this whole thing going wrong. For one thing, Abuela is at least sixty years older than us, and, for another, I’m five years younger than Elena. I can’t imagine the old woman will like her favorite granddaughter dating a woman, much less who may not even seem like a woman, but a girl. Una muchaha. I can already hear the usual narratives that go with our age difference: I’m too young to know what I want, Elena is taking advantage of me (or I of her), what can we possibly have in common, and so on. I try to put myself in their shoes and imagine what I would think if it was one of my straight friends dating a guy years older than them. I can’t say I don’t see where the worrying comes from, but this is so obviously different.

I’m taken back to last night, the first I’ve ever spent at Elena’s house. We slept in the living room, sharing the black leather sofabed and a fuzzy pink blanket that didn’t even reach our ankles. We left the TV on for background noise, set to some American channel that played music videos all night long. The light from the TV made Elena’s skin look blue and violet. We had been making out for hours nonstop, and my lips had begun feeling swollen. We started dating two months ago, but everything has been purposefully slow-paced.

My right-hand index and middle fingers had been pulling at the waistline of Elena’s sleeping shorts, feeling with my knuckles the soft skin under her belly-button, perpetually hidden, and somehow a thousand times more divine than that that is usually exposed. She grabbed my hand tenderly and removed it. I was, logically, somewhat disappointed, but had also been expecting it. She had been the one hitting the breaks for the last months. And then she slipped her hands under my shirt, a first, which I was definitely not expecting. They felt cold over my bare skin, as she slid them over the side of my ribs. She stopped when she reached the border of my sports bra, and asked a simple, short, “¿Puedo?” May I?

It had never occurred to me that asking permission, even when it seemed obvious, could be the hottest thing in the world. Yes, if I’m sure of anything, is that this is not a creepy old-dude-taking-advantage-of-some-young-girl situation.

“Mamá, venga sientese, le quiero platicar algo,” Elena suddenly says, bringing me back from my thoughts about last night.

I realize I’ve washed the last of the leaves, and there are no nacatamales left to build. Abuela washes her hands and dries them with a worn-out hand towel that had been hanging in the handle of a drawer below the sink.

“Rapidito los hicimos todos,” Abuela remarks before walking out, “We made them all quickly.”

“Cuando me tocaba hacerlos sola en navidad me tardaba horas, todo el día. Los pies sé me hinchabán. Ahora con la ayuda de ustedes es rapidito. Todo es más facil juntas,” she continued, “When I had to do them by myself at Christmas, it took me hours, all day. My feet were swollen at the end of the day. Now, with the help of you two, it’s quick. Everything’s easier together.”

Nacatamales are a traditional Central American dish, usually eaten during the Christmas season, and more often than not prepared by the women in the house; who will lock themselves in the kitchen for hours, leaving only for bathroom breaks. Their hair tied back, sweat decorating the front of their faces, and their cheeks flushed from the heat of the pots. A little like what the three of us look like right now.                                                                                                                Abuela follows Maria Elena out of the kitchen and into the living room. Maria Elena turns to me and nods to follow, but I don’t move. I feel shitty I’m not being more supportive here, but I’m just so sure this will ruin everything.

I know Honduran moms and grandmas, they can get anyone’s phone number in a nanosecond. Abuela’s memory may be weak and she may not be able to walk dozens of kilometers barefoot anymore (debatable), but she can still storm out of the house, out Maria Elena to her mom, call my family, and make sure we never even hear each other’s names again.  Elena must be able to read my thoughts because she comes back and grabs my hand.

“Vamos mi amor,” she whispers, “It’s ok. No hay nada que no podamos enfrentar juntas.” It’s our saying, there’s nothing we can’t face together. I nod and follow.

Abuela sits on the sofabed we slept in last night. Maria Elena folded the blanket and placed it neatly on a corner in the morning. She sits next to Abuela and takes her hands in hers. I realize she’s waiting for me to sit. I scan the room. I can’t sit next to them, that would be too crowded and awkward. I choose a small stool piled with notebooks and books facing the sofabed, and slowly place those on the floor.

I sit and take in the portrait in front of me. Maria Elena’s soft hands over her abuela’s dry, cracked, trembling ones. The scar around Abuela’s index finger is the only ring she wears, never married but had five children, from two separate men, she had to raise by herself. Abuela has known a harsh life, a lonely life.

 Before Maria Elena can open her mouth, Abuela suddenly interjects, “Mija, y cuando vamos a hacer los nacatamales?” She’s asking when we’re gonna make the nacatamales we just made.

Maria Elena gets the usual expression this kind of incident brings to her face, a deep sadness mixed with patience and understanding. Abuela’s slow mental and physical decay breaks her apart, the constancy with which she seems to exit the present. I can’t help but wonder if that is part of the reason she’s so insistent on coming out to her, an attempt to ground her in the present, even if just for a moment.

She begins to tell her we’ve already made them, and as she does, I’m suddenly no longer afraid of what’s to come. I can hear Abuela’s words in my head, everything’s easier together. Regardless of Abuela’s reaction to her gay granddaughter’s coming out today, I know Maria Elena will never know the alternative to the easiness that comes with doing things together. And in this moment, that’s enough.








© The Acentos Review 2018