"Go out and buy me a kilo of tortillas," said my aunt. "Make yourself useful."

I took the money and headed out the door.

The Colonia was lively as ever. Aside from the push-me-pull-you dogs, scruffy gangs of kids were playing marbles in the dirt. The ice cream man pushed his little wooden wagon selling paletas. Another man pushing the exact same wagon was selling steaming hot ears of corn. Their magic skill really involved my brain: how did one keep his treats icy while the other kept his hot? Huge water trucks rumbled through with bad boys hanging onto the backs. Old ladies swept tides of dust off sidewalks. The mailman marched sharply from yard to yard blowing his whistle. Brilliant kites rattled in the phone lines like slaughtered pterodactyls. The hill was jumpin'.

The tortillaría was the world's jolliest sweat lodge. The heat was always high from the massive sheet of iron kept hot by eternally burning propane burners. Six or eight women worked in there all day, sweating and yelling over the sound of a radio. You could smell the holy maiz heating and sending out its incense all over the street. You could smell it from two blocks away. And the sound of their palms on the corn dough was audible from at least one block distant. Pit-pat, pit-pat, pit-pat.

That Sound lies within the heart of everyone who relied on fresh corn tortillas every day, a sound now replaced by heartless machinery that presses out tortilla analogues on conveyer belts. That's why Old Town San Diego keeps tortilla makers in restaurant windows. Something sacred is going on and it gets in the blood.

I would stand at the counter and peer up at them. Those women, with all their mysteries and their laughter. Pit-pat, pit-pat. Everybody was poor, but who knew? Their arms --- the richest most enjoyable brown --- jiggled as they worked. Their hair, deep black, wound into immense braids, lay pinned to their necks or held back by cloth. Pit-pat.

They ground the corn in big stone metates, both the corn and the stone handed down through generations from the Aztecs, still bearing Aztec names. Their hands repeated the motions of millions of hands and hundreds of years. Their hands, grinding and patting and laving the corn patties upon the hot metal, were a time machine. You could fly back to Tenochtitlán on their palms any day of the week.

They fed all us gawking kids. You could hang out at the tortillería and eat a pound of soft hot tortillas. They'd give them to us plain --- good enough! Or they'd roll a few drops of lemon juice in one, or a pinch of salt, or both. I ate a couple of these mini-tacos while I waited.

They pulled pure white wrapping paper off a huge roll --- just like my Grandpa's poetry roll --- and tore off a foot or so and wrapped the tortillas snugly. The paper tucks were snug as diapers.

I headed home with the bundle hot and pulsing comfortably against my gut.

--- From Nobody's Son
Luis Alberto Urrea

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