(First published in The Santa Barbara Sentinel as, Tortillas of the Hands: Part Two)
Learning to make tortillas taught me more about life than I expected…
The sun beat down as I drug my feet through the dry sand, nearing the small beachside restaurant with a palm-leafed roof.
Maria, the woman who would teach me to make tortillas that afternoon, was busy with a few customers so I pulled out a chair near a plastic white table and sat down.
A little girl about five years old came up to me.
She had beautiful dark brown eyes and thick eyelashes reminiscent of a Disney princess.
Standing by my side with her petite shoulder touching mine, she pointed to my phone.
I instinctively showed her photos from our sailing trip, pictures of my family, and images with features I could translate.
She introduced herself as Rosalita then climbed on my lap, took my phone, and began scrolling at her own pace. Many of the pictures were of a Christmas celebration at my family’s home with my not-quite one-year-old nephew surrounded by toys and unwrapped gifts under a sparkly, ornamented tree.
As she continued to swipe through, I looked towards the small cinderblock houses just beyond the restaurant.
It dawned on me that my photos represented a life she might never know. A wood floor and carpeted home. Modern fixtures and furniture. An abundance of abundance.
Though this little girl didn’t seem to lack in happiness, or even pause to notice a difference, it made me realize once again that although “stuff” doesn’t determine a happy life, I had a lot to be thankful for.
Rosalita continued, pointing to people in my photos to which I would reply, Mi madre y padre, mi hermana, mi sobrino. I gave her a gentle hug in appreciation of lesson she unknowingly delivered and kissed her lightly on the head just as I would my young nephew.
“¡Hola, Megan! ¿Listo?” Maria smiled and motioned me to the kitchen.
Rosalita, who I later discovered was Maria’s niece, followed close behind and took a seat in the corner to watch us make tortillas.
The simple ingredients were laid on the counter in front of us: Flour, salt, manteca (lard), vegetable oil, and warm water. Maria used basic Spanish and hand gestures to illustrate directions.
“El agua tibia,” she said. I shook my head, confused. “No calor, no frio,” she said as she dribbled tepid water on my hand to explain the word, “warm.”
She let me take over in the beginning, mixing ingredients together to make the dough.
At one point, Maria rested her hand on my back, encouraging me that I was doing a good job. She exuded a sort of maternal love. Equal to the feeling I got as a child making cookies with my mother.
She demonstrated the next step by squeezing dough in her palm and through a small opening created by her thumb and pointer finger. Out came little round orbs, about the size of a bouncy ball you would buy for a quarter from a toy vending machine. Maria turned the balls into small patties by patting them flat with three fingers and rotating on the dough on the palm of her hand.
All In the Family
As we let the dough rest for a few minutes, she explained she makes up to eighty tortillas a day and was taught the recipe by her mother and grandmother.
She doesn’t use a tortilla press and instead stretches the dough into flat circles. I was nervous I’d stretch the dough too thin and break the circle so mine were thicker than hers, more like watered down pancakes.
We cooked each tortilla on a piping hot skillet for about two minutes on each side. I looked to Rosalita in the corner seat, her eyes pleading with me to finish so we could get back to my phone. I tell her in Spanish it may take about ten more minutes. “Diez minutos?!” she whined. We all burst out laughing and her cute face recoiled in a shy, embarrassed smile.
At the end of our lesson, I played with Rosalita and Maria filled a bag of tortillas for me to take back to the boat.
As I gathered my belongings I teared up, honored that Maria shared this family recipe with me.
I said goodbye to Rosalita and after an affectionate hug from Maria, I held her hands, looked into her eyes and said, “Gracias, mi nueva amiga.”
Thank you, my new friend.