I remember sitting by the stove, watching Ali, my nanny, chop white onion, serrano peppers, and squash for the calabacitas a la mexicana, while the epazote aroma from simmering frijoles de la olla filled the house for over an hour until the broth thickened to a perfect soupy consistency. Ali was from a village called Ixtlahuaca, which means “place without trees” in Nahuatl. Besides being an extraordinary cook, she was my companion, teacher, and most importantly a second mother, helping me dress every morning, preparing my lunch, and pouring the glass of leche Alpura, silky and cold, that waited for me by the kitchen counter so I wouldn’t go to school on an empty stomach. When my parents went out, we watched silly TV shows together or listened to scary stories over the radio. On occasion (if I begged enough) she’d let me come to her room while she ironed.
Ali had a daughter named Gloria who, to my delight, sometimes came to stay with us. Gloria and I didn’t look alike. Her skin, like her mother’s, was the color of wet sand, and she had a long face and deep black eyes that shimmered in excitement as we collected snails in the backyard and lined them up to race at a glacial pace. I don’t remember thinking of our differences as such. I do remember thinking, Gloria dresses like that while I dress like this, Gloria speaks like that while I speak like this. To me, these were all just qualities—not superior, not inferior or equal. Yet it didn’t take long for the socially constructed world to catch up with our playful world of kinship.
When I asked my parents why Gloria, who was my age, had difficulty reading and writing, or why she couldn’t stay and attend school with me, they shushed me. I argued that if she were at our house more, Gloria could be with her mom, and we could play together all the time. These questions—simple and straightforward for a six-year-old—didn’t sit well with my parents. The atmosphere grew stiff. I knew not to raise the subject again. Gloria’s visits became few
One day, after more than a decade of life with Ali, I came home from school to find that she and all her things had disappeared. At first, I was confused, then deeply saddened. There were no explanations. Life just went on. When I pushed for answers, I was told Ali didn’t leave, she’d been let go. Someone else came to work with us. That was that.
In my own home, I silently came to understand that human care could be outsourced, and that people were treated differently depending on race, gender, class, education, age, ability. I began to ponder questions of identity that I’d later—with the help of Buddhist and anti-oppression-education language—be able to understand and articulate more fully: Who is this self I call me? Where do I start and end? How come I get to live this life as opposed to any other? Who are these people, these others that stand at the edge of my body, kitchen table, and immediate family, and what is my responsibility to them?
In The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, Thich Nhat Hanh explains the Buddhist concepts of self and interdependence. If we look at a flower, he writes, we realize it’s made entirely out of non-flower elements. The stem, leaves, and petals by themselves can’t be called a flower. There’s no flower if you remove the nitrogen and oxygen, or if the soil, temperature, and moisture conditions don’t come together just right. Likewise, the self I call me is entirely made from non-me elements. From the parts of my body to the chemistry sparking my activity and neurology, to the sociocultural and political conceptions that make me who I am and the contexts that sustain them, my existence not only depends upon, but is also interwoven with everything else.
What changes when, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr., I see that “all life is interrelated” and that “I am caught in an inescapable network of mutuality”? What changes when I cease to understand Gloria and me as separate? What changes when I see that Ali’s nurturing made me who I am today?
I immigrated to Canada in my early twenties. At that time, I became interested in cooking, but I didn’t know much about it, or so I thought. As I started chopping tomatoes and cilantro, standing before the pots and pans, all those years watching Ali move about the kitchen came back. I’d learned so much from her.
Without being aware of it, la milpa had entered my consciousness through Ali. La milpa, an agroecological system that developed in Mesoamerica to cultivate maize, beans, and squash, has fed people in a sustainable way for millennia. At the heart of la milpa tradition, there are also complex, interdependent relationships between the farmers, land, and culture.
In sharing her embodied knowledge of la milpa with my family, Ali welcomed me—a third-generation Mexican-Jewish girl—into a tradition I didn’t know I belonged to.
We experience interdependence every day, in all our conscious and unconscious activities. It’s up to us to understand this and to decide how we will use our understanding. Do we use our understanding of interbeing to harness systems of oppression that uphold false hierarchies instilling the value of some human lives above others? Or do we use it to generate systems of mutual flourishing?
I share the story of Ali and me not only because of my implication in the ongoing perpetuation of systemic oppression in my country of origin, but because my story is not unique. It reflects the stories of millions of indigenous and campesino women and the millions of families of the middle and upper class in urban and suburban Mexico. It’s possible to see how interdependence threads through the individual, interpersonal, sociocultural, and political spheres at once. The wealth accumulation and lifestyles of the few are carried on the shoulders of the many. People like Ali and Gloria bear the brunt of this interdependent system of oppression.
About twenty years ago, Ali knocked at my mother’s door looking for work. She had diabetes and needed to pay for her meds. My mother referred her to my grandpa, a practicing MD, for a checkup and gave her some money.
The fact that Ali stopped working for us the very same year NAFTA was signed and then returned thirteen years later with a diabetes diagnosis does not feel like a coincidence. The dismantling of social welfare supports and subsidies for small farmers, together with the introduction of calorie-dense foods from abroad, follows in a mirror-like fashion the rise of the diabetes pandemic in Mexico.
Our stories are never simple. In the cultivation, distribution, preparation, and consumption of everyday food and care, lies the essence of our human nature. Greed, hatred, fear, and delusion, as well as kindness and compassion simmer in the same pot. I’d like to locate myself on the side of the latter qualities. However, it’s but one pot, and I can’t avoid mingling with it all. Hence, I practice.
I practice to stay awake. I practice to recognize and resist the false narratives explaining away the social, political, and cultural orders I live within. I practice to be able to gain and sustain an understanding of how my relationship with Ali speaks to the white-supremacist, heteronormative, capitalist patriarchy I’m both a part of and an agent in.
How to bear witness to it all? How to sit in the middle of this interdependent reality with eyes and hearts open, not flinching? How to take skillful action? These are the questions I grapple with and will continue to do so every day of my life.