Last December, after many years of very hard work and sacrifice, my family celebrated the graduation of my wife Sandra from the University of Arizona (U of A). She received a Master’s degree in bilingual library science. The graduation speakers, including U of A President Peter Likins noted the need to prepare ourselves to contibute positively in a changing, multicultural and democratic society. Another speaker said how these graduates represent the best and brightest minds our community has to offer.
I am currently working to finish my own Masters in bilingual education. I am the first of five generations of proud working-class Mexican Americans in Tucson to attend the U of A. So it was really exciting being seated with my two young sons and daughter at the basketball center and seeing my wife’s and our family name displayed on the four-sided giant screen above center court.
Then the tortillas flew.
At first I thought to myself, “Wow those are some really neat little Frisbees those kids are throwing around.” Then it hit me. I turned to my son Humberto, who is 9, and said, “Mijo, do you see what they are doing? That’s disrespecting our culture.”
He looked at me with his brown-eyed disappointment and sheepishly said, “Yeah Dad, I see what they’re doing.”
I couldn’t let this go, not in front of my children, who have been raised to respect themselves and their Mexican heritage.
I asked the two young white tortilla-flingers in the row ahead of me, “Why are you doing that?” They turned their curious heads back towards me and said, “What?”
“Why are you throwing tortillas?” I repeated more boldly.
“Oh, it’s a tradition during graduation,” one guy said curtly.
“What do you mean tradition? I graduated from here seven years ago and I don’t remember throwing tortillas. What you are doing is disrespecting my culture,” I said. “Tortillas are a staple of indigenous cultures throughout Mexico. People are starving there and here. I’ve been teaching high school for seven years and I teach my students to respect all cultures, including my own.”
I could feel the stares and shame-filled silence of the people seated around us. The kid replied, “I can see your point but everybody else is throwing them, so I’m going to throw them too.”
“I asked respectfully that you not do that,” I persisted, trying to control my anger and disappointment. My daughter, who was seated on my lap, kicked him in the back.
I recall the days and nights when tortillas con frijoles, o tortillas con carne, o tortillas con papas, o tortillas con peanut butter was all that my mom or myself could muster. I was raised to think it a sin to waste food, period.
For us Chicanos, food is something sacred. It’s one of the few things in life that can be truly shared, enjoyed and yet taken away so easily. With poverty-induced hunger being a reality at home and abroad, and suffered especially by children, it was an outrage to have to endure such a spectacle on one of the most proud days in the lives of my family.
I see tortillas as a reflection of who I am. Since ancient times tortillas have been referred to as “Toconayo,” which is Nahuatl for “our meat.” Tortillas de Maiz (corn), especially, are a key part of Indigenous Mexico’s great and ancient culture.
One of my greatest memories as a kid were the times my mom would warm up the kitchen with her big, black comal fired-up on the old white dutch-oven and make fresh tortillas. Recalling the smell alone is enough to make my mouth water and stomach grumble. My mom, a short 110-pound but tough Chicana, would stand by the stove flip-flopping la masa de harina from palm to palm, gently stretching la masa with her tender fingers into a beautiful circle of Chicano soul food.
She used to teach me how: “Mira Mijo, when the masa starts to rise and make a pansa, that means it’s ready to be flipped. Pick it up by the edges andale!”
Disrespecting tortillas is like spitting on the best memories of your mother.
Ask Lalo Guerrero. Lalo received a special medal from President Clinton for his pioneering work in Chicano music. One of his songs describes his love for tortillas.
I’d like to think that Lalo, upon seeing the so-called graduation “tradition,” would take out his guitarra and use it to compose something that would put some sense and respect into our graduates.
I have written to U of A Pres. Likins about stopping the tortilla-throwing at graduation. I requested the University of Arizona Hispanic Alumni Association join in, too. And you can write, too: Dr. Peter Likins, President of the University of Arizona, P.O. Box 210066, Tucson, AZ 85721.
Ray Siqueiros is a reader in Tucson.