Corn and nostalgia Trips to Mexico mean food and remembrance


Story and photos by Claudia Meléndez Salinas

Like thousands of Mexicans living in the United States, I often make the trek to the motherland during Lupe Reyes — the period of time bracketed by the feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe on Dec. 12 (her nickname is Lupe) and the feast of the Three Kings (Reyes) on January 6. The pandemic forced me to miss the visit in 2020; this year the trip was a must.

I was not alone. According to the Mexican Department of Tourism, 31 million international tourists arrived in Mexico in 2021, 6.8 million more than in 2020. Last year, “only” 24.2 million of tourists arrived in Mexico from abroad, a 46 percent decline from 2019.  Not sure how many of these international “tourists” are Mexicans or people of Mexican descent living abroad, but I bet the share is significant. A couple of compatriots who now live in Salinas sat next to me on the flight to Mexico City.

One of the things I miss the most about my hometown, home to the oldest continually inhabited settlement in the American continent, is the food. Mexico, in general, but Puebla, in particular, is world renowned for its cuisine. Growing up there was culinary heaven. In fact, if you ask Mexicans what they miss most about their homeland, nine out of 10 will respond the same way. Tacos on this side of the border are just not the same, nor the tortillas nor the beans, nor the rice. There’s a special flavor, a sazón, that Mexican food on its bustling streets possesses, a flavor that can’t be replicated.

So the first thing I do when in Puebla (established in between 800 and 200 B.C. in Cholula, home to the largest pyramid in the world) is hit the street vendors.


Yolanda Salinas (AKA Claudia's Mami) waits patiently for a pambazo to be served from a street vendor in Puebla, México. Claudia's pambazo arrived early. | Photo by Claudia Meléndez Salinas

On my first day, my mom and I went to El Carmen, one of the original sections of the city founded by the Spaniards after defeating the Mexicas. We buy chileatole; a green, spicy stew made of corn, epazote herb, and serrano chili. Chileatole is a true prehispanic dish that’s to die for and that I’ve been eating for as long as I’ve been alive. My family and I have been purchasing chileatole from this particular vendor in El Carmen forever. Same food, same spot, same family for decades. The consistency is comforting and remarkable. The only thing that’s different now, after the pandemic, we are no longer offered clay bowls to drink from — only styrofoam cups.

The chileatole vendor (I’ve never asked her name; I should) sits on a small bench, low to the ground, in an ancient apartment building. All her accouterments are low to the ground, her clientele towering over her, no counter, no kitchen, no tables, just her gigantic clay pot and her wooden spoon, its handle worn out on the spot that touches the pot, the spicy aroma wafting through the patio of the colonial building. A wooden block where she cuts the lemon she squeezes into every cup sits nearby. My mouth waters as I see her stirring the chileatole and pouring it on my cup.


Staring down at a cup of chileatole | Photo by Claudia Meléndez Salinas

Still hungry after polishing off the chileatole, Mami and I decide to explore the remaining delicacies in El Carmen. Will we have chalupas, tortillas fried with lard plus salsa and shredded beef? Or pambazos, fried bread stuffed with beans, shredded beef, sour cream and salsa? Molotes — fried corn dough stuffed with cheese or mashed potatoes or tinga? We settle for chalupas. The aroma of fried lard brings me back to my childhood, to evenings with my parents and siblings, all together sharing the same meal, out on the street on chilly nights, another brick on the road of our lives.

Most of the meals we enjoy are corn-based. Chileatole. Chalupas. Molotes. Quesadillas. Tamales. There is also wheat-based finger-licking stuff. Cemitas. Pambazos. We are not a mestizo culture for nothing.

The people who feed us are mostly, if not 100 percent, Indigenous. You can tell by their features, their dress, the intonation of their voices. Growing up in Mexico, I remember hearing a lot of contempt for Indigenous people; being called an “indio” or “india” the biggest insult. Not sure if the contempt is still there — it likely is. In my heart I have nothing but gratitude for these hard-working men and women who feed us these unique, ancient foods. Whose ancestors survived a centuries-long cultural onslaught to continue offering physical and spiritual nourishment.


Chileatole, esquite and corn in the cob vendor in El Carmen, Puebla, México, in December 2021 | Photo by Claudia Meléndez Salinas

Before coming back to the States, I want memelas, another corn treat. Giant tortillas made with beans inside, smothered with salsa and fresh cheese, fried with lard. I’m usually very careful about my diet, but I don’t come home every week, so the scrumptious, lardy food is welcome in my mouth.

My brother has a special spot near our home, but Mami has another idea. She wants to go to the vendors near the house we grew up in, a couple of miles near the city’s downtown. I remember these women from when they used to set up their stand on the street, like the hot dog vendors we regularly see outside concerts in the U.S. That’s how they sold memelas and quesadillas for years, day in and day out, until they got a storefront half a block from where they used to set up on the street. It’s an airy place with a few tables and a bathroom underneath the stairs, one you have to crouch really low to get into. The vendors, a pair of sisters, speak to each other in a language I don’t recognize.

“The language you’re speaking is beautiful,” I tell Mago, one of the sisters. “What is it?”

“It’s Nahuatl,” she said, shyly.

“It’s so nice to hear it. I hope you’re teaching it to your child,” I said, referring to the boy who steals hugs from Mago in between her memela-and-quesadilla making.

“Yes, I am,” she said. “He speaks a little. But you know how they don’t want to speak when they get older.”

“But he’ll remember and he’ll want to take it up again,” I said.

“Yes,” she said, nodding, smiling, even blushing. I’d never seen an Indigenous woman in Mexico so readily admit she’s speaking her native language. Mago seems proud of having been asked, to have her language recognized. A little acknowledgment always goes a long way.

Before coming back north, to the land that feeds me in different ways, I have one more culinary stop. Cemitas. There is no other place in Mexico that makes this bread without egg and covered with sesame seeds, and until recently it wasn’t sold in the United States. Thank heavens for migration and nostalgia, you can now find cemitas in L.A., in Chicago, and in Puebla York. *Wink wink.* Mami and I bought a couple of cemitas in the market to go, so we could have them for dinner.

But dinner came and I was really craving an esquite. True, I can find cooked corn-in-the-cup anywhere where Mexicans live in the U.S. When my mom visited me in Salinas recently, I had the urge to get some, and I told her: I bet if we drive around we can find a vendor. Sure enough. We drove around the Alisal for a while, turned into Williams from a side street and there she was, a cooked corn vendor with her pushcart. She’s been selling for about 10 years, the vendor told us.

But esquites in Puebla have a special taste. They taste of evening escapades with my middle school best friend, of rainy afternoons in the park where my parents met and fell in love, of my entire family being together, before my Dad left us, before he died. It tastes of the ancient history that runs through my veins, makes me who I am, edifies my soul. The cemita can be saved for the trip to the airport, I thought. We can hit the chileatole lady – who luckily also sells esquites – once more.

Those esquites did not disappoint. The cemita was *chef kiss.*

Featured image: Mushroom quesadilla on the foreground with Mago and Manuela in the background, former street vendors who now own their own storefront in Puebla, México |  Photo by Claudia Meléndez Salinas

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Claudia Meléndez Salinas

About Claudia Meléndez Salinas

Claudia Meléndez Salinas is an author, journalist, open water swimmer, and cat lover. | Claudia Meléndez Salinas es autora, periodista, nadadora de aguas abiertas, y aficionada a los gatos.