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Pa’ Servirle

my first made-from-scratch tamales

My 18-year-old niece is spending time with me, for this first time really, this summer. My brother (her dad) and the rest of my family live in California, where I was born and grew up. I now live in Miami. I’ve lived away from my family since I was a few months short of 18, and have lived out of California for most of the 20-plus years since I graduated from college.

So, this is the first time I’m getting to spend some time alone with my oldest niece, and the first time she’s really being exposed to my world.

Her boyfriend is visiting too and this is the first time I’m meeting him. Good guy. Very good guy. He figured out how to get a Greyhound bus and come up to Miami from the Keys, where he’s been staying with friends. The other day, he reached Miami hours before we returned from a trip. Not knowing my neighborhood, he took a bus to a stop he was told was nearby. Then, in the middle of a sweltering South Florida summer day, he ended up walking about three miles to my home, carrying his guitar case and his luggage. Probably dropped about 10 pounds in sweat along the way. “Ah, what love can do,” my roommate told him as she welcomed him in.

Though my niece would insist she could survive on cheese puffs and ramen, I couldn’t help but make them at least some rice to eat. After it was done, the boyfriend came in to the kitchen and asked for a bowl so that he could serve my niece.

My roommate, who is from Colombia, and I were stunned. My niece was hanging out in front of the TV in the other room and I called her in to the kitchen. “Honey,” I said firmly, “take care of your man.”

My niece visibly shuddered, and gave me a glaring look of “what the hell?” So, I added, gently: “Honey, as long as you’re in my house, you’re going to be Latina.”

One of the things I treasure about the way I am is that I love taking care of my man. I can’t tell you where this sentiment comes from. It is something so deep in me that it surely goes back to the beginnings of my life. I am Latina. My mother is from Mexico. My grandmothers are from Mexico. I am the daughter of a Mexican-Italian man, and twice, now, I have been a wife.

The women in a Mexican family are expected to serve, and most of all, to take care of their men. Service is also expected of men, in their own way. It’s a concept that is honored in Mexico. In Mexico, strangers may greet you with the phrase “Para servirle,” the equivalent of “at your service.” If someone doesn’t catch what you just said, they’ll say “mande usted?” which roughly means, “at your command?” I once knew a man who, if I asked for a favor, would respond: “As you wish, mi reina.”

In Mexico, the art of service is honored. But on this side of the border, service in the sense of domestic work, is a concept that is shunned and met with the same sort of shudder that my niece felt when I scolded her.

This beautiful young woman reluctantly walked into the kitchen and I handed her two bowls from the cabinet. I showed her where the serving spoons were and the two of them each served their own bowls. We talked as she and her man ate their rice.

She told me how she had watched her mother serve my brother and the rest of the family first, and herself last. It was something my niece rejected. Why shouldn’t the man be up serving, too?

I can understand. I remember asking the same thing myself. I remember being that age and leaving home with the idea that I would be independent. That I was a feminist. That I didn’t need a man to do anything for me. … And I remember believing that in order to prove those concepts, I needed to reject the traditional womanly roles that had surrounded me. I did pretty well at building this identity through college, when I would proudly split the tab on dates, or treat my guy to restaurants when he was out of money.

But, then, after college, I moved to Mexico. At first, I too rejected the traditional roles. At parties, I didn’t like being expected to hang out in the kitchen with the rest of the women while the men drank beer out by the barbeque. I was used to the American model where the genders mingled together. I tried to hang out with the men, at first. But, then, I realized that I felt something missing and, the men didn’t know what to make of me. I went through a time when at social gatherings, I’d wander off by myself. Then, I met Eli.

Eli was still a teenager. Stunningly beautiful. With flawless fair skin and dark curls that fell long around her face, she was more beautiful than the actresses on the TV novelas. She had a young baby whom she adored. She was sweet and kind. She sensed my loneliness and, even though I barely spoke Spanish then, she worked at welcoming me and bringing me into the circle of women. They showed me how to cook. They taught me how to prepare shrimp that had just been pulled from the ocean that morning. They showed me how to make from scratch many of the delicious Mexican meals that I missed from California. Afterall, in this Mexican community where I lived, women cooked from scratch. There were no ready-to-eat options in the stores, no salsas in a can, no corn tortillas in plastic bags, no taco kits in a box.

Eli invited me behind the magical curtain that separates the genders in Mexico and she showed me the wizadry of the womanly arts.

With time, I learned to cook. With the time that seems so abundant in the slower pace of a Mexican town, I learned to wash laundry by hand in a cement sink especially designed for the job. With time, I found myself spending my leisure ironing those clothes and enjoying the smell of the laundry soap that arose from the heat.

As my skills grew, I grew as a woman. And, over time, I noticed that these feminine skills were like a magic potion.

If I made a dinner from scratch, it were as if I’d made a rose appear from thin air. If I set the table with attentive care, if I dressed up to accentuate my feminine features, if I served my lover with the love of a woman, I was rewarded with expressions of appreciation that went far deeper than the times I picked up the check.

The few men who’ve told me they loved me did so after I had served them.

The key to this equation, though, is balance. No woman should be a slave. I serve my man because I choose to do so. And, I have chosen to be with a man who responds in kind, his own kind, and with his own kindness.

Part of this equation, however, requires that a woman be self-sufficient. I knew women in Mexico who served drunken, abusive husbands because they had no means to support themselves if they left. Being able to serve freely only comes if a woman is able to live freely, on her own. If there’s one lesson I remember from my grandmothers and my mother it was this: M’ija – always have your own money.

And thus, I have my own life. I have my own home. I have three young sons whom I am able to care for on my own. I have the freedom to choose how I live. And, most importantly, I have the freedom to choose whom I love.

I choose to love a man who is deserving of my love, and of the womanly details I lovingly offer.

There is no shame in honoring the traditional roles of women. There is no shame in tending to one’s loved ones. There is nothing wrong with doing the simple things that are so easy for me to do – serving my man coffee, pressing his shirt, folding his laundry. The man I love, the man whom I am blessed to have in my life now, appreciates these detalles.  … In exchange, I am rewarded with a gentleman’s manners – a man who expresses his love by giving me the best pillow, the best blanket, the best spot on his bed. Though he could easily click his car key remote to unlock my door, he goes to my side first and opens my door.

Simple things, really. They cost so little, but mean so much. Though I may at times perform the tasks of a servant, I do so because it is my expression of love, and I am rewarded as if I were a queen.

This morning in my kundalini yoga class, my teacher said that she’d recently spent time in meditation and, as many souls have done before her, she asked the divine – why are we here? What is our purpose? The answer she received, she said, was this one word: Service.

Para servirle.

© 2011 Andale Chica

One comment on “Pa’ Servirle

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