Home / Stories / Throwback Thursday: “A ‘Gringa’ makes Tortillas—Cross Cultural Cooking”

Throwback Thursday: “A ‘Gringa’ makes Tortillas—Cross Cultural Cooking”


Editor’s Note: In celebration of our 25th year of preparing and supporting lay missioners, we look back to our archives at a World Care newsletter from 1993 with an article from returned missioner Jodie Abbatagelo from Class Three serving in Guatemala from 1992-1993.


To the rat tat tat of tin, I opened my door that first morning in San Ixtan. There stood a very thin girl of fifteen with a huge smile on her face, whom I had met briefly two weeks before. At the time I was still studying Spanish in Antigua. Her name was Celia, and she greeted me with an engulfing, typically Guatemalan hug that, given my colder New England ways, I found almost too endearing. After a few moments, I wondered if I’d ever be freed from her near-desperate embrace—and then I realized that I was now more free than ever before. With no worries of University and other preoccupations left behind, I was ready for this new stage in my life—whatever that might entail.

The following week I was invited to her house She wanted to introduce me to the fine art of tortilla making, and although I never was much of a cook back home, the thought excited me more than the rich, tropical vista of a Guatemalan landscape.

Not too much later, I found myself in a dark kitchen of “lodo” (or mud) with two small holes cut from the 6 feet high tin roof. The holes, arbitrary though they appeared, were designed to let in choice rays of sunlight into the 4×7 foot floor area. I questioned the practicality of these holes due to a rainy season that lasts from May to November without realizing just how practical the covering of a few simple palm leaves could be. Apparently, they do a sufficient job with keeping the rain out while allowing the sunshine in.

It was in this storybook alcove of clay ovens and open fire that I learned how to coax an already ground mixture of cal (lime), corn and water into the small, rounded patties they call tortillas. At every attempt, mine came out looking something like a flat tire and inevitably one of my not-so-nimble fingers would end up tearing a hole. The grace with which Celia and her mother transferred those patties from one hand to another put me to shame, and of course, they had a great time laughing at the “gringa” and her attempts to overcome her First World handicaps.

They rhythm created by fingertips slapping palmed dough was immediately enchanting, and so mesmerizing, it kept me indifferent to the thick black smoke that rolled out from under the hot plate and stung my eyes. I marveled at its possible fusion with Guatemala’s native marimba. As the tribal beats rose up into the smoky air and escaped through the two tiny skylights I thought about how the next time I would come equipped with my pocket recorder…

About 30 minutes and 50 tortillas later, that morning’s ritual celebration of maiz had come to a close and I joined Celia’s brother back inside their two-room home. He was working diligently with what I later learned to be a borrowed guitar, and it surprised me that phenomenal classical Guatemalan riffs came from a guitar with five stripped metal strings and the sixth plastic. I also found that yet another element of the First World had slipped across the border and stuck to the guitar face in the form of a psychedelic decal with “Peace Frog” printed artfully in black.

I asked the boy who proudly bore the gringo name “John” why he didn’t assist us in the kitchen. He answered with a laugh that reminded me that, despite the various First World Influences, this was still very much machismo territory.

As Celia’s mother struggled with a hen tucked away in a dark corner below the oven, she extended an invitation for lunch. I graciously accepted and watched the dim oval that she retrieved become more brightly defined as it flashed in and out of the skylight. She handed me the warm, film covered egg and I immediately understood their sacrifice. Their only hen having produced its daily gem, we passed the next hour picking at our humble portions and wading through the greys of our broken communication.


Featured image found on flickr Creative Commons from user Ray Metzen.

We prepare and support lay Catholics for two-year international, one-year domestic and 1-2 week short-term mission service opportunities in solidarity with impoverished and marginalized communities across the globe.

The blog is maintained by the communications staff.