Friday, January 22, 2016

Contacts and Layers, Dinner at Cancun Cafe

           “Autoethnography, transculturation, critique, collaboration, bilingualism, mediation, parody, denunciation, imaginary dialogue, vernacular expression -- these are some of the literate arts of the contact zone. Miscomprehension, incomprehension, dead letters, unread masterpieces, absolute heterogeneity of meaning -- these are some of the perils of writing in the contact zone.”

                                                                      —Mary Louise Pratt, “Arts of the Contact Zone”

Uxmal, I have never visited you. I have not seen first hand your stone pyramids and palaces, nor have I heard near you the whoosh of Yucatecan nor smelled the spicy depths of achiote, a seed that seasons the food of your people. It not only imparts flavor to the meals people eat near you, known also as annatto or bixa it once colored people to make them attractive, to make them social. 

Though you stand stolidly in Yucatan a monument to a once and maybe, your name escaped and I found it on a gray, smoggy, Salt Lake January in a brick building, near the city’s center, with federalist doors and windows. You were in a place called Cancun, as if the resort on the opposite side of Yucatan where blue waters and gleaming, tall hotels meet, where pyramids from Chichen Itza, not you, stand out on the wall.

The day was cold and dirty snow still made piles from earlier storms when my friend and I pulled open the door and walked into the cafe’s perfumed warmth, where you, confusing you, sometimes pronounced Ucs-mal and sometimes Ush-mal, were on the menu.You confused me more when I read you were a plate of cheese enchiladas in red sauce, accompanied by rice and beans. 

How, Uxmal, did you become a label for a food from my land, that long contested, militarized strip where two imaginations beat against a growing wall and where cheese and chile come together? You are a world away from that line where cowboys and vaqueros separate.

The one in English tamed the West while the other in Spanish civilized the north.The one had cattle drives to railroad towns and made beef the American fare; We would not have hamburgers without it. The other, with Spanish-speaking dons, made a world of beef perched between north and south. Not only was this strip a place of steak whether English of Spanish was spoken, it was a world of flour tortillas, chile and cheese on both sides. 

Your world, Uxmal has cenotes going deep into the earth and pyramids rising skyward. A place of pibs, ovens in the ground, and sapotes growing on trees. You had mathematicians who invented the zero and astronomers who plumbed the night skies.The Spanish brought sour oranges to you. They mix with your achiote in rich concoctions. Their complexity is like a night of galaxy on top of galaxy splashing in light across the sky, so different from the straight-forward and relatively plain sauces of that border strip where chile and maybe oregano and garlic stand alone, no folding or layering of flavors allowed.

My friend went traditional and did not order a place-made-directly food. His was indirect. He asked the waiter from Yucatan, named Russell, for cochinita pibil, a slow baked pork marinated in sour orange and achiote and cooked in banana leaves. Originally it was cooked in those pibs in a technique as old, perhaps, as the first people to wander down to Yucatan. 

I could not resist the confusion of my Tex Mex border with a city in Yucatan and not knowing how to say the name. I know in Mayan the x is sh, just as Mexico once was Meshico in pronunciation. I have been corrected before when I said the -sh- and was told it’s -cs-. Russell said it as Ushmal.

Uxmal arrived, yellow cheese—made yellow with achiote dye—and a chile gravy with hints of cinnamon, and not the straight-up red chile of my home side by side with red rice and refried beans, the classic combination of the north that really does not go too far south.When I was a boy, enchiladas used only white cheese, a Monterrey Jack of the border, but now yellow cheese increasingly dominates. Though more gringo than not, still the yellow cheese has achiote, the only thing other than the name Uxmal, tying it to the cochinita pibil my friend had. 

His dish was deliciously complex, sour citrus notes against a pulsing base of achiote in a broth of very slowly cooked pork. It was complemented by red onions sliced and marinated in sour orange, so different from the two-note shuffle of my Uxmal. 

As we paid the bill, Russell asked me in Spanish, a language of my youth and my adulthood, where I was from. “El Paso”, I said.  “But you do not have a Tejano accent,” he responded as x went from sh to a throaty h without ever passing through -cs-. “I used to,” I said, just like white cheese used to fill enchiladas and Salt Lakers thought the sauce should be mostly tomato. “I have spent a lot of time in South America over many decades. My accent has changed. Their’s is sticky.” 

I wanted to ask how he was named “Russell” when he was from Mérida, but held back. Russell, un-questioned, was good enough.

My friend and I said good bye to Russell. We trudged out the door to where breath takes form and becomes visible when leaving your mouth and Cancun stayed inside.  


Mary Louise Pratt, "Arts of the Contact Zone” [From Ways of Reading, 5th edition, ed. David Bartholomae and Anthony Petroksky (New York Bedford / St. Martin's, 1999)] (accessed January 22, 2016)


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