¡Feliz Cinco de Mayo!

What started out as a slightly obscure holiday out west commemorating a Mexican victory over French forces back in 1862 has blossomed into a nation-wide holiday celebrating Mexican culture and heritage. The day is not Mexican Independence Day as many seem to believe, and, like St Patrick’s day, is celebrated more in the US than it is in Mexico, but it really is a great reason to celebrate our neighbors to the south.

Growing up out west, I really don’t recall not celebrating Cinco de Mayo and the parades in the Mission district in San Francisco were always a wild time, but a couple of my most memorable holidays were when I lived at Lake Tahoe in the ’70s.

When I worked at the Hyatt, pretty much the entire dishwashing and kitchen-cleaning crew was Mexican. Most of the crew also only spoke Mexican – and if one spoke English, he was promptly made a supervisor. The majority of the crew lived in Truckee, CA and the hotel ran a shuttle to bring them back and forth to work and home.  It was a less-complicated time and no one was screaming that immigrants were stealing American jobs or were getting preferential treatment. They were a hard-working group who took pride in a job well done. The kitchen shone and the Washoe County Health Department could come in at any time and not find a problem.

I took over the department in ’78 or ’79 and I learned a lot. One of the first things I learned was that the lowest-paid employee of a place can make or break you. It’s about dignity and respect. Simply treating people fairly and honestly could work wonders. And I learned that the more I could communicate in their mother tongue, the more the crew would communicate to me in mine. I had a bit of a background in Spanish from school, so the language wasn’t entirely foreign to me, but  ¿Cómo se dice…? came out of my mouth often. By the same token, the crew would ask me “How you say…?” and we’d share laughs over our ridiculous accents and pronunciations. As I said, it was a less-complicated time.

Pretty much the senior member of the group was a man named José Ayala. José was easily 20 years older than me and he was my experience in managing someone old enough to be my father. He was opinionated and pigheaded and almost always had a better way of doing something. (Sound like anyone you know?!?)  One of the best lessons I learned was to trust him. We all had the same goal but we didn’t have to take the same path to get there. And he never let me down.

Which brings us back to Cinco de Mayo.

Truckee is a small town in the Sierras and in the ’70s, had a small but significant Mexican population. And they had a great Cinco de Mayo parade. Every year, José would lead the parade carrying a huge Mexican flag. He took his position seriously and while other celebrants and participants would have a bit of liquid libation before – or during – the parade, he wouldn’t touch a drop. It wouldn’t be dignified for the bearer of the Mexican flag to be borracho!

After the parade, of course, was a different story.

I got muy borracho with José a couple of times – most notably at parties at our house. When Michael, Susan, Clare, and I lived together, we had more than a few parties… and our house was really set up for them! I can’t believe the house we paid $425/mo now rents for $175/night.  Granted, they’ve cleaned it up a bit, but… It really was a great house. It started out with me, Steve, Dusty, and Keith. I lived there for most of four years… That huge window was once covered with a huge piece of Christo’s Fence we made into a drape with about a mile of nylon rope.

But I digress…

One party in particular had well over a hundred people, live music, Mexican Mariachi guitars and rock and roll US guitars playing back and forth with liquor and drugs and all sorts of debauchery going on. To see a 24 year old kid playing guitar with a 50 year old Mexican guy with limited English is something everyone should experience. Ethnicity and age didn’t matter – it was all about the music. I don’t think that particular party was the time I tried to step off the loft and walk across the heads of the crowd down below, but our parties always had vastly different groups of people together and everyone always had a blast. That was the whole point – to have fun. The food and drink were legendary – we never – ever – use paper and plastic – and never had problems with breakage. Even in huge, diverse crowds, people behaved better with china and glassware. And when the Truckee Contingent arrived with trays of tamales and other homemade treats, it only got better.

So we move forward about 35 years and I now sit here and reminisce about parties-past and smile at all the sweet indiscretions of youth while cooking my Americanized version of tacos, refried beans, and rice.

The taco filling was ground beef, onions, a can of tomato sauce, green chiles, chipotle powder, cumin, Mexican oregano, salt, pepper, and a splash of Tabasco. And then there was shredded lettuce, shredded cheese, diced tomatoes, sliced olives, diced onions, pickled hot peppers,  salsa, and guacamole – home made, of course. I fried corn tortillas for myself, and gave Victor his flour tortillas. He’s a buritto-boy. Nonna just ate the fillings without tortillas.

And she surprised me, again. She went back for seconds of the spicy taco filling. It was especially funny because when she came into the kitchen I said we were having tacos and she said “Tacos?!?” and gave Victor a WTF? look that was priceless.

Feliz Cinco de Mayo, indeed!