Family dinner with the Gallegoses: Tortillas and togetherness

The great American family dinner tradition, Census data show, is perhaps greatest among Latino households in the US. Four generations of the Gallegos family – of San Ysidro, Calif. – have regular dinners together. And gorditas – small, stuffed tortilla pouches – are a dinner mainstay.

Max Dolberg/Special to TCSM
The family dinner ritual at the Gallegoses home includes four generations for tortillas and togetherness. Rosa Gallegos serves gorditas – stuffed tortilla pouches – to her mother, Manuela Marín. This is part of the cover story project on family dinners in the June 25 issue of The Christian Science Monitor/Weekly magazine.

On the most southwesterly street in the United States, inside a shade-dappled tract house, Rosa Gallegos is in the kitchen preparing gorditas de chicharrón on a recent Saturday afternoon. Her husband, Jesus, and grown kids, Ailin and Omar, hover nearby waiting to help slice strips of cheese and stuff the little tortilla pouches with a spicy filling of pork rinds, tomatoes, and chilies.

For now, though, the kitchen is Rosa's domain. She reaches into a bowl of masa (corn dough), shapes a golf-ball-sized sphere, flattens it into a disc with a tortilla press, and cooks it on the comal (tortilla griddle).

"My mother used to make the masa at home from scratch," she says in Spanish, cocking her chin toward 85-year-old Manuela Marín, who is watching a black-and-white movie on TV. "But I just buy this from the tortillería."

PHOTO GALLERY: The great American family dinner ritual

US Census data show that among the 10 million Latino households in America – like the Gallegoses – family dinners are more common than in the general population. More than 84 percent of Latino parents with kids under age 6 report having daily meals together.

Four generations wait hungrily for Rosa's gorditas today, including Omar's wife, Mary, and their infant son, Carlo; Ailin and her daughter, Paulette, 7; and cousin Melanie Diaz, 5.

Store-bought masa is but a minor tweak of a family tradition that has remained unchanged for generations. Rosa learned this recipe at Manuela's skirts. Manuela learned it from her mother back in Durango, Mexico. Manuela's memories are fuzzy, but thinking of her own mother's cooking induces reverie over buñuelos (sweet, fried dough).

When the gorditas are done, the kids are called to put down their iPods and Barbies and come to the table. Extra stools are pulled in, and raspberry lemonade is poured. The conversation touches on borderland topics – how long was the wait at la linea (the border) today? – but is dominated by Paulette, who speaks animated Spanish, with occasional English words like "report card."

Afterward, Omar helps his grandmother to the couch and returns to linger at the table with Jesus. Mary and Ailin argue good-naturedly about who will wash dishes. The little girls scamper to the kitchen and plunge their hands into the bowl of masa to press gorditas for leftovers.

Later, Jesus wanders into his toy-strewn backyard. Not far beyond the back wall, the vibrant chaos of his native Tijuana rises over a trio of border fences festooned with concertina wire. In Jesus' 1960s childhood, there was no fence, and he recalls sneaking across the border to snatch tomatoes and cucumbers from farms on the US side before his grandmother called him and his cousins into the house for dinner.

"People here aren't used to eating together," he says. "Kids come home after school and they eat what they want. They don't wait for everybody to sit together. With Latino customs, there's more communication; you feel more relaxed with the support of your family. If someone has a problem, you can vent about it; but if you sit and eat alone, you keep your stress inside."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.