Abuela became an altogether different woman when I got sick. Nourishing, soft, humming—she still looked like the woman who’d leave me in the casino parking lot to go play slots, but animated by a gentler spirit. She’d lie me down on the couch, hike my legs up on her lap, and sing to me under her breath while watching her telenovelas. Or she’d put a cold washcloth on my forehead and boil some tea. But always, no matter the sickness, she made me caldo de pollo—chicken legs with the bones sticking out, broth with an oily sheen of fat, vegetables sliced into chunks, and a library of herbs swimming on the surface. Corn tortillas adorned the sides of the bowl, perfect for picking at the chicken. The heat chased the sick from my fingers.
She didn’t call it caldo de pollo. She rarely called things by their Spanish names in front of me. But she didn’t call it chicken soup, either. It wasn’t called anything. It manifested, nameless and welcome, whenever I got sick, along with its accomplices Sprite and VapoRub, the elixirs of the Chicano world. I would secretly covet these sick days when I became well again, when Abuela would go back to calling me spoiled, go back to bickering with my mother over money or where we were going to eat. It’s hard to remember what being sick feels like when you’re well, but I remembered the replenishing warmth of caldo de pollo snaking down into my belly, assuring me that I was going to be fine.
It’s common for Mexicans to experience what I call a memory without memory. Our childhoods are littered with rituals we don’t quite understand; a Chicana friend tells me when she was sick, her abuela would heat up tortillas and lie them on her stomach while singing, “Sana, sana, colita de rana.” My abuelo told me his mother would put an egg under his bed when he was ill. We know there’s something ancient about these practices; they’re ornate and serious like ancient things are. But the ancestors have no faces, and the acts themselves are carried out as matters of clinical necessity, rarely accompanied by any lore other than, “My mother used to do this when I was sick.”
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For those of us who have been assimilated, Latin-American history itself can feel like this—half-remembered fever dreams of textures, relics, and traditions with labyrinthine roots that evade tangibility. I believe it’s why our culture lends itself to the fantastical, why magical realism found its home under our roof. We inhabit an “in between.” This notion of being caught between worlds, dubbed “nepantla” by queer Chicana scholar Gloria Anzaldua, plays out colorfully in our cuisine, where indigenous traditions live on in everyday kitchen objects like the comal, a flat griddle for tortillas, called “comali” in the Aztec world, and the molcajete, a tripod mortar and pestle from pre-Columbian days.
But beyond the physical objects are the philosophies, which might have lost their names over time or been folded into Western precepts, but which still govern our memories, the old gods of our childhood kitchens. They live in our language, in our traditions, and in our approach to life. The notion that food and medicine are indistinct is one example, something our ancestors knew long before “superfoods” became a phenomenon. Here, at the intersection of culinary traditions and folk medicine, we find the healing magic of our abuelas. The more people I asked, the more stories I got about our “sick day” foods and rituals; caldo, Sprite, songs, tortillas placed in such a way.
Seeking answers, a friend directed me to Felicia Cocotzin Ruiz, a curandera, or traditional healer, who has become the godmother of the movement to decolonize the kitchen. The aim, in part, is to do away with notion that indigenous foods and traditions belong in the past and to highlight the nutritional and spiritual benefits of the cuisine of our ancestors. In doing so, we can discover more about them, and about ourselves.
“You may never know what all went into your abuela’s soup,” she told me over the phone, after correctly guessing that Abuela would sing while she made it. “The most important ingredient is the energy.” She told me some foods are stirred to the left, for example, while others are stirred to the right, in accordance with the flow of energy in the cosmic kitchen. “Nuggets,” she called little practices like these, “little things our people have managed to hold on to.”
For Cocotzin Ruiz, as with me and many other people of Mexican descent, it was the desire for healing that brought her closer to her traditions. She took her first steps toward becoming a curandera, she told me, when her brother contracted HIV in 1991. She tended to him, massaged his feet to help him relax. Just before he passed, he told her she should go to massage school, which she did.
“Those words set me on my path,” she said. She began studying curanderismo and incorporating her love of food into her practice. I couldn’t help but think of my abuela, about how after she died my aunt made an ofrenda, a traditional altar with flowers, candles, and food, for her on the Day of the Dead for the first time. It was an act of healing after death, a way for us, as a family, to make peace with loss. I thought about how the acid taste of pain and death and sickness draws the ancient things out of us.
The ingredients of caldo de pollo are startlingly simple. It’s a soup made for chucking—chunks of meat, vegetable stubs, other scraps. It’s ideal for any low-income family with an already busy kitchen, a sick kid on their hands, and a botanical arsenal at their disposal in their gardens. Abuela had one like that. She’d give us mint leaves to chew on when we had bellyaches. She’d break off pieces of aloe vera when we were sunburnt, and give us chili peppers to clear our sinuses; living history, living remedies, smuggled through seeds and songs and sopas.
I tried to make it for myself once when I came down with a bad cold. I threw all the right materials into the pot, and it came out tasting about the same, but it didn’t have the same profound effect. I think a crucial ingredient is the presence of someone else, someone who sings and stirs the broth, someone who places the bowl in front of you, someone who cares about you and wants to see you get better.
VapoRub won’t really cure the flu on its own. Sprite won’t really cure a stomachache. And maybe Abuela’s caldo de pollo, magic as it was, never broke any of my fevers. Maybe there’s some science to it. There probably is. But that doesn’t really matter to me. These things are more a technology of the spirit than anything else, items of ritual healing. They tell us, “You are cared for. You are loved. You will be well again.” We reach for these things, as if by animal instinct, when we feel ill. As we wait for fever to break, it can be comforting to consider that, in times of distress, our bodies remember who we are.