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When I Had to Give Up Flour Tortillas, I Lost My Culture

After going gluten-free, I felt the rupture between me and mis abuelas more than ever

When I’m desperate, I heat up a rice tortilla on the comal. You know, the kind found at alternative grocery stores: organic, without a trace of GMO corn, and unsatisfyingly gluten-free. Nothing like homemade tortillas, or tortillas from the local Mexican market.

While warming up these rice imposters, I still use my fingers to flip them, because that’s what my abuelas taught me. Once, as a teen, I tried to use a spatula to avoid burning my fingers; mi abuelita Cata smacked my hand with it and reminded me that Mexican women don’t flip tortillas with anything but our bare hands.

Gluten-free pseudo-tortillas, like the rice “tortilla” now on my comal, get hard when overcooked, and after a couple of minutes off the stove. They taste like chewy cardboard, and become as flaky as unreliable friends. They require room-temperature ghee in place of margarine, and more disciplined observation during cooking than the tortilla y mantequilla pairing passed on by mis abuelas. I stare at the pseudo-tortilla on the comal, making sure it doesn’t start to crack, and I remember the way that, as a child, I would stalk my grandmothers as they made flour tortillas — how they would slowly rise, and, when perfect, inflate like a balloon — and I think about how I’ll never experience that again.

I stopped eating flour in 2012, at the age of 38. After one week of what I thought was the stomach flu and a patch of oozing blisters on my chin, a doctor informed me that my symptoms seemed to be caused by a digestive issue. I couldn’t afford a formal diagnosis, so I completely purged my diet and slowly reintroduced foods, one at a time, until the symptoms resurfaced. I brought gluten back into the fold last, two weeks into my self-imposed allergy test, hoping for the best.

Just 15 minutes after my morning tortilla ritual, my stomach felt bloated and knotted.

When I suddenly realized what gluten-free really meant — no more flour tortillas — I was devastated. Up until then, my favorite way to eat a flour tortilla was to wait for a generous amount of butter to melt and pool in the center; sometimes I added the butter while the tortilla heated on the comal. Once the butter melted, I’d use my fingers to gently rip apart the edges and dip each bite into the puddle. I’d repeat the process over and over, making my way to the center, until the last bite, which was used to wipe down the remaining butter off the plate. I then completed the event by licking the butter off my fingers. This is what mis abuelitas taught me: Savor each bite.

There are many dishes that were passed down from mis abuelitas to my mother and me: migas, breakfast tacos, both sopes and chiles rellenos de picadillo, and a variety of salsas. Although I spent most of my life in Southern California, my family’s home-cooked meals were always from the Texas and Mexican border. A lot of the dishes my grandmothers cooked, and some of the food traditions my parents brought with them to Orange County, were not found in Mexican restaurants in Southern California in the ’70s and ’80s, where I grew up, and neither were homemade flour tortillas. Even when I was able to eat those flour tortillas, they never compared to the ones mis abuelitas made in Texas. Flour tortillas in Tejas are taco-size, not the jumbo and thinner burrito tortillas you get in Califas.

During my first couple of years of being gluten-free, I risked my physical well-being a few times by eating a flour tortilla in the Rio Grande Valley, because I knew those tortillas were the closest to the ones my grandmothers made. Both times I ordered a single barbacoa breakfast taco, and doused it in green salsa with a spoon of pico de gallo. Instead of folding it up and eating it in a few big bites, I ate it like a buttered tortilla: opening it up, tearing pieces off the edges, and making my way to the greasy middle. This way, the experience allowed me to revisit a family tradition that lasted longer than four bites, one that reminded me of mis abuelitas and their sacrifices, to be grateful for the opportunity to make my own choices in life as a woman. But I learned quickly it no longer provided the same physical comfort.

Discovering I couldn’t participate in this moment of reflection, of comparing my life to the roles my grandmothers held in their households, profoundly affected my cultural identity. Being the first generation to be born in the U.S. came with a slew of cultural expectations, and I was always reminded by the women in my life that I wasn’t Mexican enough. So naturally, when I removed flour tortillas from my diet, I felt like the last of my culture was stripped away. What makes it even more fraught is that I now compensate for that lost tradition by shopping in places neither of my grandmothers can afford — for the ghee from the farmers’ market and the rice tortillas from the bougie grocery store. The practice serves as a constant reminder of my lack of connection to their lives, and how my privilege goes far beyond citizenship.

Growing up with my Mexicana y Tejana familia, I learned that homemade flour tortillas were the real tortillas. Corn tortillas were merely what we had when we couldn’t get the real thing. My parents grew up in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, where the U.S-Mexico border is shared with the southernmost tip of Tejas — Brownsville, Texas, where I was born, and where flour tortillas and breakfast tacos were already staples. In my grandmothers’ kitchens, the rolling pins were hailed like saints on the wall. Only the ordained few, who knew how to use them to shape perfectly round tortillas, were allowed to touch them. In my family, that meant just one or two of my tías inherited the tradition.

Over the first three decades of my life, Sundays meant Abuela Cata, my maternal grandmother, would wake up and head straight to the kitchen. She’s a widow twice over who eventually migrated to Dallas, and continued making flour tortillas in the big city, even while she worked a full-time job. Throughout my childhood and into my early 30s, she kept her own kind of ritual, fueled by the fact that she became the head of her household twice, after each of her husbands died early in marriage. On Sundays, a small radio played rancheras next to the stove, the tea kettle boiling the water needed for the flour tortillas whistled, and her off-tune humming cued the tortilla making.

By then she had mixed the all-purpose flour, salt, baking powder, and lard in a large bowl; eventually, she added hot water. The rolling pin’s thump synced in soon after Abuela was done kneading and making stacks of doughballs. The cutting board doused in flour echoed a slow, consistent rhythm each time the rolling pin struck it. This was the soundtrack for family members getting out of bed or dropping by. Depending on what the week had in store, or if someone had a birthday or a promotion, Abuela Cata would also cook barbacoa overnight, along with pinto beans in the old crockpot adjacent to the radio, or send my uncle out to buy some. The salsa was always already made, maybe even two or three types — salsa verde de tomatillo, salsa de chile de árbol, and pico de gallo para la barbacoa.

My grandmother stood in the kitchen until she was done flattening and cooking all the flour tortillas, always putting aside two or three for herself. Often, one of her grandchildren would help, flipping tortillas while she continued to roll out doughballs, but not one tortilla would be placed on a plate without her approval. I couldn’t tell you how many tortillas she made each Sunday because they were eaten within a minute or two off the comal, but sometimes she stood in the kitchen for two to three hours. A line usually formed; our act of appreciation made my abuela cackle and at times she yelled at us to move out of the way. We knew if we didn’t line up, we wouldn’t get our share of her tortillas; you couldn’t get more than one tortilla at a time, so the line was cyclical, never stopping. It was abuela’s way of keeping the peace while uniting and nourishing her children and grandchildren at least one day of the week.

In a different kitchen, located in Brownsville, 527 miles south of Dallas, Maria Luisa, my paternal grandmother, made tortillas for her husband well into her 70s, and almost on a daily basis until he passed away in late 2010. My grandfather insisted on homemade flour tortillas every day. He was a bracero who migrated with his wife and children to Brownsville at the tail end of the Bracero Program — a labor agreement between the U.S. and Mexico established in 1942 to fulfill farm labor shortages during World War II through the mid-1960s. The term “bracero” is used to refer to laborers who use their hands, and it was my abuelo’s labor, and that of both of my grandmothers, that gave me the opportunity to be my family’s firstborn in the United States.

In 2008, just prior to my gluten-free days, I asked Abuelita Maria Luisa to teach me how to make flour tortillas. She laid out the ingredients on her kitchen table: all-purpose flour, salt, baking powder. By the early 2000s, she had replaced lard with Crisco, for health reasons. She also had the tea kettle boiling and two large plastic bowls on the table; she pointed to the one I would use to prep my own batch of flour tortillas. “Si quieres aprender vas a tener que hacer todo como yo, y luego practicar todos los días también”: She insinuated that I had to do everything like her and practice every day, like she had for over 50 years. Without thinking much about it, I laughed out loud and clarified that I didn’t have time to make tortillas every day. She merely raised an eyebrow and started adding flour to her bowl.

I watched my abuelita attentively. After she added each ingredient, I asked for exact measurements. Abuelita Maria Luisa merely showed me how to pinch my fingers and cup my hands. I have to admit, I knew then I would never be able to make tortillas like her, just like I will never live her life. She was 75, I was 34, we were both already familiar with loss. She had her first child at 18, my father, who died when he was 36. Losing my father at the age of 13 changed my role as the eldest in my family. I was expected to be strong and be the breadwinner, like my father, for the sake of my mother and younger sisters. I view that loss as my first step toward independence, yet also the catalyst to denying my domestic role, the only role Abuelita Maria Luisa could embrace.

I kept observing how she moved her arms: She held them centered to the mound of flour. They were surprisingly muscular and robust; in her way, she was a bracero like her husband. She smashed all the ingredients with her hands, making fist after fist, feeling the texture between her fingers, and adding a little more scalding-hot water. I mimicked her every move and found it all physically challenging. She observed me as well and disapproved when I pulled my hands out of the bowl to avoid being burned.

As a child, eating Abuelita Maria Luisa’s flour tortillas was a different experience from eating those of my maternal grandmother, whose tortillas came to represent the chaos, resilience, and unity of family time. Abuelita Maria Luisa taught me to appreciate solitude. Each bite was a moment just with her, especially in the early mornings, when she would give me the first tortilla of the day, covered in melted butter. During such moments, she shared countless stories of her life.

Before migrating to the U.S. with my grandfather, she lived in a home with dirt floors. She was expected to keep them clean and patted down with water to emulate cement. Once in the U.S., she was expected to play a domestic role for her husband and six children. Yet, in the kitchen she got to be the head of the house, even if it only lasted until the last bite of the meal. I once asked Abuelita Maria Luisa why she accepted my grandfather’s machismo. She raised an eyebrow at that statement too, and retorted, “¿A ver, dime, qué tipo de vida tuvieras si yo no me quedaba con tu abuelito?” Her sentiment was similar to the comments my own mother made after my father’s passing, and both reminded me that my life was made from the lives they didn’t get to choose. It was through Abuelita Maria Luisa’s words that I came to understand that she chose to succeed in her domestic role in order for me to choose my own role in life — including the option to prioritize my health over cultural expectations.

Now, I have to count the starch I eat per day, and I get angry whenever I see people who have the fortune of being able to eat flour tortillas turn down the opportunity. Both of mis abuelitas are in their 80s, living in their respective homes in Tejas. Both survived major surgeries: One had a stomach tumor the size of melon, the other a brain tumor the size of a man’s fist. Abuelita Cata recently endured knee surgery and has difficulty standing for long periods of time. Abuelita Maria Luisa is limited by a wheelchair and, a few years ago, she lost full movement of her arms. These days they both spend less time in the kitchen. Yet it is both of mis abuelitas who shaped — through how they approached making their incomparable flour tortillas — how I approach my own womanhood. In my way, I am a product of their lives. I know it is their rituals that gave me permission to create my own, whether I eat flour tortillas or not.

Sarah Rafael García is an award-winning Chicana author, artist, and bookstore owner in Santa Ana, California.
Naya-Cheyenne is a Miami-raised, Brooklyn-based multimedia illustrator and designer.