We don’t bury pigs into the belly of the earth anymore. Near the cast-iron caldron, steaming with pig skins over a fire, we’d gather to tell stories of how sacred spaces were made for more than church. We’d tell stories of why we loved the neighbor on the right because she made a great caldo (broth), but not the neighbor on the left because he had a perrerio—too many dogs.
My uncles told of how Jesus put bad spirits into the pigs as they forked at the burning wood underneath the cast-iron caldron, torn between biblical knowledge, ancestral traditions, and great flavor. How do you choose?
The result of our labor would be chicharrónes—crispy pork skins. Making chicharrónes was always visceral to me. I didn’t want to carry the knowledge of suffering. I liked the flavor, texture, and taste when each pork skin crunched and an eruption of pork dust puffed out of my mouth, causing dandruff-like specs to adhere to my clothes. I was covered in martyrdom never befitting my personality.
Later, I’d ask why we ate animals filled with forbidden waste. Grandma said because we weren’t Catholics anymore. So, what were we now? And, if we switched theology again, what would we eat then? A few short years later, making chicharrónes was too laborious. We bought them prepackaged at the supermarket. They seasoned them differently, and that was reason enough not to toil over the caldron any longer.
Slowly, the way we made our food and when we gathered it changed. We no longer stripped the corn cobs of their kernels in slicing downward movements, causing milky yellow liquid to splat on our cheeks and clothes. We purchased cups full of them from the grocer set up on the corner of S. Flores Street and Southcross. His flavor, imported from the deep south, marinated many mounds of kernels with mayonnaise, chili powder, lemon, and pepper.
A few years after that, we no longer ate at home, gathered around a table overflowing with stories and chisme—tails of what our aunts should not be doing as proper Mexican women. We preferred fast food, no wait times, and the labor of someone else’s hands. And, I wondered how many times we changed denominations and which theologies we no longer valued that brought us here. Here, where our tongues no longer craved stories and slow cooked meals. Where the flavors of our spirituality were sacrificed on the altar of import.
Recently, I asked Grandma why we didn’t gather at her home anymore. Why we no longer ventured out to Pa Graciano’s house to chase a turkey for a feast. Why, instead, we made trips to the supermarket to pick one that weighed the most. Why did we break bread made by someone else?
Her reply was not one I expected, as is often the case, I wasn’t ready or equipped to embody the possibility. Grandma said the baton was passed from her hands to the hands of her grandchildren. It was up to us if we wanted to believe what was possible with our own hands, or if we wanted to share the labor with others.
Shared labor creates possibility. From that possibility is infused joy and all the spices and richness of storytelling and food making. The labor of our hands when we cook or when we raise them to the sky in Hallelujah praise. The labor of sweat as we fold in the maguey leaves over heat to hold together and later make ready the barbacoa—the face of the cow. This barbacoa we will come to share each and every Sunday after church as a staple of affection.
During the winter, a menudo pulsating from the cow’s tongue, I stir the soft chunks aside to mix down the cilantro lime hominy that burrows itself to the bottom of the bowl. It is absent of onion because Grandma says if the onion makes you cry, you’re a celosa—a jealous woman. Now, I chop an onion in hiding before I toss it into the bowl and blame the tear on the jalapeño floating to the top like a shark ready to bite my lip.
Joy comes from the stories we present to our friends and family, stories we gift to our children for their children and their children and theirs—generational storytelling with an open mouth and heaping spoon. Joy comes when we imagine that working together is possible and so often necessary. Joy comes when what we hope in is revealed to us, like when God says to us he is with us even when we’re all part of the denominations he didn’t make. That he loves us despite the theologies we carry in our bones and stomachs.
In meals, we find theology and sacredness; we find the hand of God moving. Like when our compadres, Angie and Cros, have us over for a feast of pulled pork, beans, rice, and sometimes lobster ravioli, chalupas, picadillo, and chamoy rimmed margaritas. All our worlds collide in one small kitchen overflowing with stories, backgrounds, culture, chisme, and never a bowl empty of salsa—would you like it red, green, or fire-roasted? What would you choose?
There is always room for sacred spaces, for the building and redesigning of church, for inclusion, storytelling, and sharing. My family doesn’t gather for the toil of afternoon snacks anymore. They’ve entrusted us with an estate of language, food, and story. When we tell of labor and sacred space, we throw a maíz tortilla on the comal while the Scripture hangs near our table as a reminder: “They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts” (Acts 2:46, NIV).
Although we no longer gather in a vast open field, we convene at a small kitchen table. Tomorrow, it may no longer be a table but the corner of an intersection where church abounds. Neither is inferior or superior. Because how can God choose?