I go outside into the backyard and invite abuelo fuego into my sahumador. I offer the copal to the fire, and I pause for a moment to allow my body and the smoke to acknowledge each other. I greet the mountains that surround me in every direction. They are the guardians of the great earthen basin that houses the city of Tucson, Arizona. I stand on the traditional lands of Tohono O’odham and Pascua Yaqui peoples. As I call in the abuelitos of the seven directions, I see five turkey vultures riding the thermals in the West. A sixth vulture glides over my head from the East, cutting across the sky to join the rest. I thank them for their presence. I ask them for their help because it has been hard to find my way with the writing. I would be grateful for their medicina—to keep my focus and at the same time let me step aside so that the flow might happen in a good way.
I turn and face the South. I blow the smoke in the direction of the Santa Cruz River and her winding valley that stretches sixty-five miles south of Tucson. The river crosses the Mexican border just east of the sister cities of Nogales, Arizona, and Nogales, Sonora. These borderlands along the Santa Cruz River Valley are my homelands. Today I ask their permission to write as their daughter. I am a daughter who left home for twenty-seven years and found my way back. With the smoke, I pray that my words take shape in a way that is pleasing to the lands and the ancestors.
This is a story about the stones, the corn, and finding my way home. This is a story about me and my great grandmother.
Piedrita (Little Stone)
When I was about ten years old, I complained to my mom that there was something stuck in my throat. I could feel it every time I swallowed, every time I took a deep breath. By the time I told my mom about the problem, I’d tried all the solutions I could imagine as a little kid to fix it. I drank lots of water, gargled, swallowed air, and belched a bunch of times. Whatever was there was stubborn. It wouldn’t budge. After a couple of visits to the clinic, the doctor whispered to my mom that there was no evidence of real sickness. It was probably just anxiety. Puros nervios. My body was making it all up, even though I would’ve sworn on a stack of rosaries that there was something really there. My piedrita-en-la-garganta and I went home and made a pact of secrecy. We wouldn’t breathe a word of this to anyone again.
I’ve spent most of my adult life with this piedrita. Una cosita atorada en la garganta. Its presence isn’t always so prominent. It comes and goes with different levels of urgency. Over the years, I’ve spun many different psychological hypotheses to account for it. I’ve tried acupuncture, lots of meditation, eleven years of therapy, limpias. Still, the piedrita makes herself known from inside my own body. She lives in the tender depression just above the collar bones and below the larynx.
Piedrita sits at the crossroads where earthy, somatic conocimiento takes flight with brilliant long tail feathers, like the plumed speech glyphs of the old ones. Piedrita is an old voice.
When my hair is already well on its way to turning white and the wrinkles are beginning to form at the corners of my eyes, something occurs to me. My piedrita is alive. She is tenacious and refuses to be banished. I laugh out loud as I imagine piedrita with the raspy crankiness of a viejita. I hear her complaining about all the healers I’ve consulted. She tells them to get their hands off of her. De aquí no me muevo, she insists.
I feel a warm tingle of recognition spread throughout my body, and I decide to capitalize her name. She is a proper noun: Piedrita. It dawns on me where my Piedrita lives: there, at the threshold between body and mind—between the heart and the realm of the third eye. This is a tender gateway. Piedrita sits at the crossroads where earthy, somatic conocimiento takes flight with brilliant long tail feathers, like the plumed speech glyphs of the old ones. Piedrita is an old voice. Piedrita has been a guardian at this place, patient as a stone, poised for the time when I would know how to listen. I was not raised to know how to listen to my body or to the land—neither were my parents nor my grandparents. These were the ways of knowing—las facultades—that had to go underground to survive.
Las Caritas en Las Piedras (Faces in the Stones)
There was one living relative I grew up with who knew how to listen: my Mamina. She knew the language of the land, and now I think she must have known the language of her body. Mamina was my great-grandmother on my father’s side, my dad’s maternal grandmother. When she was widowed at age forty-six, Mamina and her youngest daughter, my Tía Chata, migrated across the international line from Nogales, Sonora, to the Arizona side. They moved into a house perched on a hill that literally overlooked the border.
When I was born, Mamina was well into her life as a viejita. As a kid, I spent a lot of time with her. Tía Chata would go off to work, and I’d trail behind Mamina all day. We drank café con Nestlé Quick in the morning and worked in the garden until lunch. In the afternoon there were chores to do, then a break for té de manzanilla con panecitos. We’d sit and listen to Mexican talk radio and wait for Tía Chata to come home from work. These were the rhythms of Mamina.
To people who didn’t know her, Mamina might have appeared delicate. She was thin and hunched over with a head of wispy white hair gathered into a bun. Hidden behind the osteoporosis and weakening vocal cords was a woman of strong opinions and bones with a different kind of knowing. In her garden, Mamina created elaborate stone pathways that wound around her flowerbeds. Even into her eighties and nineties, she’d be out in the hot Arizona sun with her stones and plants. She mixed her own cement and carefully considered each stone that made it onto one of her paths.
The stones have faces, she said. Find the stone’s face and make sure it is well placed. Anything less would be an insult to the stone and to the feet walking the paths. When there was heavy lifting to be done, Mamina would hire a man for the sheer benefit of his brute strength. She’d be out there with him, sweat beading on her brow, giving exact instructions. The garden was otherwise all her own making, with the stones, the plants, and the elements.
No Se Te Olvide Gozar De La Vida (Remember to Find Joy in Life)
Somewhere nearing my middle school years, I stopped wanting to follow Mamina through her gardens. I decided I’d rather read or watch TV. I learned to dismiss Mamina’s way of being in the world. Just a bunch of old wives’ tales, I’d tell myself. The lure of a different world had won out. I was lulled into the trance of the dominant culture and hooked into trying to prove myself to this insatiable world that left me feeling less-than—less sophisticated, less cultured, less worthy.
By the time I was eighteen, I wanted to transcend my origins as a Mexican American bordertown pocha. I was tired of mesquite trees and cacti. I wanted lawns and old, ivy-covered towers. In 1993, I left home and headed to Chicago for college. I stepped across the threshold of the university loaded up with a carton of cigarettes, a chronic hive condition, and a whole list of food allergies. I may have been a mess, but, I told myself, I’d made it out of the pinche pueblo.
From Chicago, I’d call Mamina and Tía Chata every few weeks to say hi. Mamina would always sign off from our calls with the same reminder to me: No se te olvide gozar de la vida, mi’jita. I don’t remember what I talked to her about in those conversations, but she likely heard me chain-smoking through the phone and noticed that there wasn’t much joy in what I was saying. She always prescribed the same word to me like it was medicine: gozar. It was an embodied word—a word for the savoring of life. Like lapping up dripping sweet honey or stepping into a cool, bubbling stream on a hot desert day. No se te olvide gozar de la vida, mi’jita. I shrugged off her advice. It was not a word for me at that point in my life. Trails of joy could be dangerous. They could lead far away from ivory towers and prestigious programs. But like a tenacious seed—like a familiar Piedrita lodged in the throat—Mamina’s words settled into my body, and they waited.
Mamina died a year after I graduated from college, just a couple months after her ninety-seventh birthday. On her deathbed, someone asked Mamina what she planned to do when she got to heaven. Not missing a beat, she said she was going to find a man to hire, so she could get to work on laying out her stone pathways and garden. I wasn’t there, but my dad said everyone laughed. It was a classic Mamina moment that our family would treasure because everyone recognized it as the gospel truth of our toothless stone woman. Maybe she’d take a few days to acclimate to the world on the other side of the veil, drink some té de manzanilla, but then she’d get right back to it. As above, so below. On Earth as it is in Heaven, world without end.
Manos en la Tierra (Hands in the Dirt)
Mamina would say that depression could be cured by getting your hands busy in the dirt. As a young adult, I never took this seriously. Back then, it never occurred to me that her wisdom was forged by the depth of her experience. The first half of Mamina’s life was hard. Her father was murdered when she was two. Her mother remarried a few years later and then died as the result of a freak sewing accident when Mamina was sixteen. Mamina married a man named Rafael, had three children, and was bedridden with tuberculosis for years. She miraculously recovered, then her husband died. He worked for the utility company and was electrocuted while high atop one of the electric poles. Mamina was widowed at forty-six. The same age I am as I write this.
In the pop-wisdom of today’s culture, folks might have encouraged Mamina to reinvent herself—to have a new love, a new self, a reclaiming of her buried dreams. In a way, Mamina did that, but her route was completely counter to the sensibilities of society’s vanities. Shortly after she turned fifty, she birthed herself into a new life as a viejita. She had the dentist take out all her teeth—every last one. She said teeth were a bother. She also threw out the dentures. She gummed her food with a glimmer in her eye. The Mamina I grew up with was joyful and alive inside. She spent most days with her hands on the stones and in the dirt. She did this for 50 years.
I think now about all that Mamina must have experienced and known through the stones, the dirt, the plants. I never heard her talk about religion. She wasn’t really a church-goer, except when Tía Chata occasionally took her to Mass. I think Mamina remembered a different way to pray that was about the intimacy of presence and connection of body, soul, and creation. I wonder if Mamina heard voices in the stones. Las voces de las caritas en las piedras. The voices of the old ones speaking across the fault lines of conquest, colonization, and civilization. The voices of the old ones who remembered the wisdom of ways that went underground but were alive in the dirt and recorded in the stones.
Guardando Semillas (Saving Seeds)
A couple of months before Mamina died, I was awarded a NSF fellowship and admission to a top-ranking doctoral program in anthropology. I was hopeful. Maybe I was finally finding my place in the world, finally proving myself worthy of sitting at the table with the intellectual elite. I moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan and rented a studio apartment with slanty floors and frequent mice visitors. But it didn’t take long for a familiar misery set in. In fact, I felt more like a pocha-from-the-border than ever before. The workload was relentless, and there was little joy.
When I moved to Michigan, I brought with me a framed photo of Mamina in her garden. I set up a simple altar for her with a candle to the Virgen. I began to leave Mamina cups of tea, and I talked to her. Mostly I fretted to her, asking her to help me make sense of what I was doing with my life.
It was in Michigan that I first attempted to make chicos, one of Mamina’s signature dishes. Chicos is the name of a stew made from dried maize kernels (the chicos) soaked and boiled in salted water, then seasoned with onion, garlic, chile, cilantro, and a tablespoon of vinegar. It was part of the cuisine of viejitas from the Sonoran Desert. It was simple food. Old food.
When I’d been packing up to move to Chicago as an eighteen-year-old, my dad had handed me a copy of Mamina’s handwritten recipe for chicos. Admittedly, a recipe for chicos was an odd thing to make sure I packed in my suitcase for college. Neither my dad nor I named the very low probability that I’d actually be preparing any chicos in my near future as a college student. But I took that recipe and tucked it away safely like a treasure map. Whether he knew it or not, my dad handing me Mamina’s recipe was like sending me off with a compass. Because when I left home, I wasn’t just moving two thousand miles away to get an education. I was about to get good and lost—stepping deeper into a world of forgetting. The recipe in Mamina’s own longhand stored a memory I couldn’t even name at the time.
That first time I prepared chicos, while living in Michigan, the stew turned out awful. I had cut corners, didn’t soak and boil them long enough. The chicos were tasteless and inedible. It would be a few years before I tried again.
I quit that first doctoral program at Michigan, abandoning my jackpot of a fellowship. I didn’t know what else to do with my life. For a while I worked in higher education, then applied for more grad school, another fellowship, another dead-end. I even ran away from academia and into Buddhist monasticism. I lived in temples for two years. There was more grad school after that.
All that time, my dad kept mailing me packages of chicos, ready to be soaked and boiled into Mamina’s favorite stew. The chicos went into the freezer. I kept telling myself that one day I’d cook them. One day, I’d have enough space and time to learn how to do right by them. Over the course of twenty-seven years, I moved twenty times—sometimes just across town, sometimes all the way across the country. The chicos migrated from one freezer to the next. When I moved, the chicos moved too, just like they were meant to. Because at their heart, the chicos were seeds—dried kernels of food, storing nourishment and the DNA imprints of the people’s connection to the land. The chicos were home.
Madre Piedra (Stone Mother)
One night in my late twenties, on the very night before I began my formal Buddhist training, I had a dream in which Mamina appeared with La Virgen de Guadalupe and my mother’s sister, who had died before I was born (a story for another day). In the dream, the three of them stood side-by-side, floating on the surface of a vast ocean. Mamina looked exactly as I remembered her. I realized that the three women were speaking. Their voices grew louder and louder until the words suddenly became discernible: DO NOT FORGET US. The message landed with such force that I bolted awake in bed, gasping for air, feeling as if I’d almost drowned. The dream haunted me for years—just like Piedrita in my throat and the chicos in the freezer. Do not forget us. I continually asked myself: what did it mean to remember them?
Mamina’s given name was Herminia. She comes from a cluster of women whose names are derivatives of Herminia. Mamina’s mother was Hermenegilda; her mother’s sister was Herminina. Mamina also named her youngest daughter Herminia. Years ago, I asked my dad if he knew how this name originated in Mamina’s family. He didn’t know. Mamina’s people came from the pueblito of Santa Cruz, Sonora, formerly Santa María de Los Pimas Suamca. When I dove into the genealogy research and pored over the ornate calligraphy in mission records, I found that our families’ traces disappeared around the mid-1800s. No records could satisfy my questions. How did any of our Spanish names originate?
I recently read a searing study of Spanish missionization in the parts of present-day Arizona and Sonora where most of the webs of my family are from. Salvation through Slavery by H. Henrietta Stockel looks squarely at the practice of baptism of Indigenous people as a form of identity theft, an attempt at erasure of the Indian soul, to be replaced by Christian saints and Spanish names. Stockel describes how sometimes the priests would baptize whole groups of Indigenous people with the same name, so the priests wouldn’t have to be bothered to distinguish individuals by name, by personhood. Other priests would just assign their own name to the newly baptized. Stockel includes the example of one such priest, Hermenegildo, who distributed his own name in baptism.
A few years ago a friend encouraged me to look up the etymology of “Herminia.” Turns out it comes from the Greek root “herma,” which means “cairn or pile of stones.” Whatever the details of how this name found its way to Mamina’s people, the voices of the stones prevailed. They are the voices that whisper: Our medicina has not been lost. Our ways of knowing are still here. Do not forget us.
Mano, Metate y Maíz (Grinding Stones and Maize)
A couple of years ago, a friend commented to me that I’d spent almost thirty years running away from home. At first I was defensive, but something in her words stung, like an arrow whistling through the air, striking with precision. I stewed on her words for days. Then I heard my Piedrita chiming in from her alcove in my throat: You didn’t spend twenty-seven years running away from home. You have spent twenty-seven years trying to find your way back.
When the pandemic hit, my husband and I were living in Austin, Texas, raising our infant daughter. A few months into this new form of isolation, I began feeling the pressure of Piedrita against my throat. She didn’t speak with urgency or anxiety but instead with a kind of longing. I began writing about my Sonoran Desert homelands—the summer monsoons, the night-blooming cacti, sacred hillside shrines, and the river valley that has been home to generations of my family. In the midst of this stream of writing, my Tía Chata died—Mamina’s youngest daughter. She was the last of the Hermininas in our family web. I could feel Piedrita telling me it was finally time to return.
In preparation for moving, we took a trip to visit my family. My sister and our parents now live in Tucson. There are fewer and fewer of us left right on the border. While staying at my parents’ house in Tucson, every night before bed, I read from Leslie Marmon Silko’s memoir, The Turquoise Ledge. She writes all about her walks through the desert on the western outskirts of Tucson. She describes coming across grinding stones—heavy stones carved out to create a cavity for grinding beans. She often finds these stones near old mesquite and palo verde trees, where they would have been used to grind the nutritious beans offered by the trees in early summer. Silko writes about how Indigenous women would grind together during the harvest. The women were connected to their stones, and they’d sing to them. The stones would also talk back, instructing the women, and providing guidance.
When Mamina died, Tía Chata moved up the road to a smaller house. Mamina’s stone pathways could not be moved. I grieved the stones, lost to another family, to other feet. However, while visiting my parents and reading Silko’s memoir, I realized I was walking by Mamina’s stones every day. There, at the entryway to my parents’ front door, were Mamina’s grinding stones—su mano y metate. These are the traditional grinding stones for maíz. The stones that my family brought with them. El maíz y las piedras. The connection reanimated something in my body. The stones and the corn. It was all still there. Nothing was lost.
Chicos Para Mamina (Chicos for Mamina)
A year after I moved back home to the Sonoran Desert, I was on my way to a Mexican bakery, when my dad called and asked me to check whether the bakery had any chicos in stock. He hadn’t been able to find any from his usual sources. I picked up my tortillas and asked about the chicos. No, they said, the supplier seems to have stopped carrying them. I felt my heart sink. Was it possible that we wouldn’t be able to find chicos anymore? Maybe people just weren’t cooking them. Maybe the pandemic had put folks out of business.
I knew I had one last bag of chicos in my fridge—one of those hidden for safekeeping. That night I said a prayer to Mamina. I told her I would cook a pot of chicos in honor of her birthday this year. She would have been turning 121 years old. Seemed like a good number to celebrate. I promised to share the chicos with my parents and really do right by the maíz this time. I’d soak the chicos and cook them until their bellies grew tender. I added a request to my prayer: I asked Mamina if she might bless us with more chicos in the future—new suppliers.
That weekend, I took my daughter to the Native American Arts Festival hosted at the Mission Gardens in Tucson. As we were getting ready to leave, we walked by a popular booth with a crowd gathered to taste samples of blue corn cookies. I was trying to navigate around the people with my two-year-old when I spotted something out of the corner of my eye. There was a dish decorated with a heart for Valentine’s Day. The dish held dried kernels of corn that looked very much like chicos. I couldn’t contain my excitement, and I wedged my way in to get a closer look. I blurted out to the woman behind the table:
“Are these chicos?” I asked eagerly.
“Yes,” she said laughing. “We don’t call them that, but they are the same thing. In our Diné culture, we call this steamed corn. We were at another festival and a very excited Mexican man came up to us and told us these were chicos.”
My eyes filled with tears feeling the sweetness with which Mamina answered my prayer. I bought two Valentine’s Day bowls of chicos—one for me and one for my dad. I drove straight to my parents’ house to deliver them.
“Mamina has a Valentine’s Day gift for you,” I said.
A few weeks after Mamina gifted us with our new supply of chicos, a book arrived in the mail. I couldn’t remember what I’d ordered. I unwrapped the packaging and my breath caught as I read the title: When Jesus Came, the Corn Mothers Went Away by Ramón Gutiérrez. It was a book I had ordered months earlier and had assumed was lost in the mail. I’d all but forgotten about it. Suddenly it was right there in my hands. I could feel the weight of the title itself—a book about the Puebloan peoples and the complexity and violence of colonization. It is a heavy book for me. It is one that I need to soak in and be slow-cooked with, like the chicos. It is a book of memories.
In the first chapter of the book, Gutiérrez shares a woman’s grinding song:
Oh, for a heart as pure as pollen on corn blossoms,
And for a life as sweet as honey gathered from the flowers,
May I do good, as Corn has done good for my people
Through all the days that were.
Until my task is done and evening falls,
Oh, Mighty Spirit, hear my grinding song.
The words take root in me like a prayer. In the song, I recognize joy. It is the kind of simple joy Mamina had—el gozo de la vida. I ask the Corn Mothers’ permission to recite these words aloud for myself—though all the while I question whether I even have the right to make the request. There is so much I still don’t know about Mamina’s people. Did their roots extend into Puebloan Indian world? How did the corn and the stones find them? What were our names before baptism? What were our languages and stories? What more do I need to know?
I can almost hear Mamina chuckling at me as my brow furrows, and I strain my eyes with the research and doubt. Just cook your chicos and find the faces in the stones, she says. Put your hands in the dirt. This is where you find us. The Stone Women. The Corn Mothers. This is how you remember us.
This piece will be published in Issue 9, forthcoming in early 2023.
Alicia Enciso Litschi, PhD (she/her) (Chicana/Xicana), is a storyteller, psychologist, and curandera who is the proud descendant of Sonoran Desert people. She is passionate about helping people reclaim their birthright to ancestral wisdom and deep belonging to the land. Read her pilgrimage of stories at www.adventuresofguadalupe.com. Photo by Julie Mueller.
Ofrenda Magazine™ explores Xicanx and Latinx spiritualities, earth-centered wisdom traditions, and healing arts. Our mission is to inspire holistic wellness, ancestral connection, social and ecological justice, and spiritual creativity.