A mother shares her food memories of growing up in Mexico

Mother's Day
The writer’s mother, Maria Franco Escárcega, is the tallest child standing to the right of Maria Gallardo Franco (seated), the writer’s grandmother. The undated studio photograph, which includes Mrs. Franco’s first seven children, was taken sometime in the late 1950s in Tepatitlán de Morelos, Jalisco, Mexico. It is the only family portrait from that era.
(Patricia Escárcega / Los Angeles Times)

Happy Mother’s Day weekend. This marks my first Mother’s Day as a mom, and I’m pretty thrilled to spend it celebrating with my young daughter. (I suspect breakfast will involve fluffy, homemade pancakes.)

With most of us under quarantine, the general mood of the holiday this year is bittersweet. Many families, mine included, have canceled gatherings. I’ll miss our pozole brunch, especially the part when we sit around the table for hours trading stories and jokes.

As a kid I was riveted by my mom’s stories. Many involve small-town characters with oddball nicknames and indeterminate fates: The shy shop girl known as La Purina (nicknamed after the feed store where she worked); the hard-working brothers known as Los Triperos (because they grilled and sold tripas near the main town square); and the local teacher, Julia La Burra (“Julia the Donkey”), who punished unruly students by making them keep their arms raised until their limbs went numb.

This week, I interviewed my mom, Maria Teresa Escárcega, to share some of her memories with you.


Tell us a little about growing up.

I was born in Tepatitlán de Morelos, Jalisco, an hour from Guadalajara. People were friendly, but back then it was a much smaller town and life was slow. There was a lot of emphasis on “el qué dirán” (“What will people say?”). You know that old saying: “Pueblo chico, infierno grande” (“Small town, big hell”).

My dad made roof tiles and mosaic flooring for a living. My mom was an incredibly hard-working homemaker and sold cross-stitching on the side. We didn’t have running water so she spent a lot of time going to the arroyo to wash our clothes.

I was the second eldest of 12 children and there was always a baby in the house. We are 10 girls and two boys. I had to help my mom with everything: wash the clothes, hold the baby. Before I turned 5, I was already in charge of tending to much of the household.

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What are some typical things you ate growing up?

On Sundays, it seemed like everybody in town ate the same thing: caldo de res (beef and vegetable stew). There were stalls in the market selling bundles of cabbage, calabaza, chayote, onion, carrots and cilantro to make the stew.

Another common dish was mole de espinazo (pork spine mole). It was typical to buy one or two kilos of the pork spine at the butcher shop, cook it and use the juices to make mole. It was great with nopales and verdolagas (purslane).

You made fresh tortillas, right?

A large part of our days were spent taking the nixtamal (nixtamalized maize kernels) to the molino (stone mill) to have it ground into masa.

A stock photo of fresh corn tortillas.
A stock photo of fresh corn tortillas.
(Los Angeles Times)

Most women would get up sometime between 4 a.m. and 6 a.m. to drop off their bucket of nixtamal and then go to the nearby market to buy meat and vegetables while they waited for the masa.

You did this every day?

Every day. It was customary to only eat fresh tortillas, and that meant daily trips to the molino. The first time I tasted prepackaged tortillas was when I came to the U.S.

Some days you got to the molino and somebody would tell you: “Se quebro la piedra” (“the stone broke”). That meant you had to wait for somebody to tear down the mill and replace the volcanic stone used to grind the masa. It was very time-consuming. There were three molinos in town back then. By the time I left Mexico, the mills were disappearing and they were being replaced by tortillerias.

Tell us a little about the family kitchen.

We had a wood-fire stove, so a lot would depend on whether we could find kindling. My mom would send us out to gather twigs and bark, but we had to be careful because scorpions liked to nest in the tree bark. It wasn’t like nowadays, where you can turn on a stove on a whim.

Everything got easier when my mom saved up money for a kerosene stove. There were lots of days we went many hours without eating.

Did you get to enjoy any special treats?

My dad had a funny habit he picked up from his own father. Whenever business was good, he bought pan dulce. He would come into our room very early when we were still sleeping and left a fresh piece of pan on our pillow. I can’t explain how much joy it brought us to wake up to a fresh piece of bread. He didn’t do that often, but I remember it well.

Can you tell us how you moved to the U.S.?

My dad was a bracero (one of the millions of Mexican guest workers in the U.S. during World War II). He was an agricultural worker and traveled back and forth between the two countries for many years. He already had a visa and he wanted us to get our papers so we could also earn a living in the U.S.

He came down with a painful ulcer and he thought he was going to die. He told us: “There is no way for women to make a living in Tepa. I want you all to get your papers in order in case I’m not around soon.” My brothers got their papers processed first. Then in 1968 I came up next. It took about four years to finally reunite all the family in California.

California orange groves
Bags of oranges outside California Citrus State Historic Park in Riverside. The author’s mother worked in the groves that the park now protects.
(Patricia Escárcega / Los Angeles Times)

What was it like to move to a new country?

It was very hard. I walked my little sisters to school and we were regularly harassed by a group of neighborhood cholos who called us things like “dirty paisas” (“Paisa,” short for “paisano” or “paisana,” is slang for someone who is from your home country).

Tell us about what you did when you arrived in Southern California in the late ‘60s.

I was in my early 20s and there was a lot of tumult. I got a job picking lemons, oranges and grapefruit in the groves around Riverside, Hemet and San Jacinto with my dad and brothers. After that I picked chile peppers and onions in Temecula. I picked grapes in Pomona and strawberries in Anaheim. Back then that part of Anaheim was full of fields, if you can imagine it.

I also worked as a sorter at a citrus packing house in Arlington Heights in Riverside, and worked for a time packing carrots near Perris.

My least favorite job was picking lemons because at the end of the day your face and arms would be completely scratched up by the thorny branches. You have to wear thick leather sleeves and gloves to do that job. It was incredibly hard work. I was asthmatic and terrified of falling off those tall ladders. We got paid 30 cents a box for the oranges and a few cents more for lemons.

What do you wish people knew about picking vegetables and fruit?

I want people to know that you should really appreciate and respect people who harvest food for a living. It’s incredibly hard work with miserly pay. You can’t imagine until you do it yourself.

Any words for mothers reading this?

Enjoy your kids and grandkids. Every moment counts. Even if we can’t be together right now, we have technology. It’s easy now to see the faces you love across many miles. It’s easier than ever to tell someone you love them.

Ask the Critics

Do you think most restaurants will be able to rebound once they reopen?

— Jessica, Facebook

This is a complicated question with no easy answers. When California dining rooms officially reopen, operators will face a grim new economic reality and requirements that may include masks and gloves on staff, temperature checks and reduced capacity. Restaurants with obvious advantages favorable lease agreements, leaner operating costs, and a steady following, to name a few will find the next few months much easier. For a glimpse into how some restaurant owners (and other business owners) are preparing to survive a post-lockdown world, check out this story put together by my colleague Sam Dean.

Have a question for the critics?

Email us.

Our stories

— Just because restaurants are closed, it doesn’t mean you can’t treat mom to a special meal. Jenn Harris has a terrific guide to Mother’s Day takeout in L.A. and Orange County.

Genevieve Ko shares the best chocolate chip banana bread you’ve ever tasted — and it’s vegan.

— Exciting news: Genevieve Ko and Ben Mims have a new cooking newsletter. Sign up here for fresh cooking inspiration.

— I can’t think of a better way to kick the quarantine blues than with Lucas Kwan Peterson’s completely factual and 100% correct Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream Power Rankings. Also: Congratulations to Lucas for being nominated for a James Beard Award! Find out which L.A. restaurants and chefs also made the list this year.

— Rotting food and hungry masses: Kevin Rector reports on how the food industry has been flipped on its head by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Amy Scattergood tells us what’s available from L.A.-area farmers right now and where to get it, and what to do with all that extra sourdough starter you’ve been feeding during quarantine.

— Finally, in case you missed it, check out Bill Addison’s roundup of 12 excellent cookbooks for your quarantine reading pleasure. (Some bookstores are offering curbside pickup.) Have a great weekend.

Sourdough starter
Amy Scattergood has some tips for what to do with the extra sourdough starter in your kitchen.
(Lisa Kogawa / For The Times )