by Roberto Chavez
I can still recall the wonderful, savory aromas wafting through the air like strong incense, invading my sense of smell and making a lifelong imprint on my soul. It seems to me that I never forgot those fragrant good smells that my grandmother created when cooking pinto beans and Spanish rice, cheese, beef, or chicken enchiladas, beef or chicken fajitas, along with guacamole, which was most the popular of the New Mexican foods, along with either flour tortillas, corn tortillas, or sopapillas. Red and green chiles were ubiquitous in New Mexican food. The children did not like them because of the smell and their strong, spicy nature. However, the teens competed for bragging rights to determine who could handle the hottest chiles. Our pride in our culture would swell and we developed a great love for the gastronomic part of our heritage passed to us from our elder relatives, who practiced culinary arts.
My family had been in heritage in New Mexico since 1690’s and they came from Spain. There were involved with the Spaniards troopers who were part of Spain’s colonization that explored for new land across from Europe. In order for them to become settlers they had to apply for a land grant through a procedure called the colonization in compromise to follow and obey their rules and continue to serve under the Spain King and Queen. My family heritage has been rooted in New Mexico since before it was founded in 1912 and become the 47th state to join the United States of America. My family’s heritage in New Mexico began with my great-great-great grandparents’ parents who immigrated in time of the Spaniard exploration of the new land in hopes of making a better living other than continuing to live in Spain.
Every year my great-grandparents, the Chavezes, did something really very important in their family traditions. Every year during Easter/Resurrection Day they hosted a family reunion at their 40-acre ranch in Torrance, New Mexico. That is when hundreds of my relatives would gather to enjoy our festival and celebrate the reunion that involved so many things such as foods, socializing, music, rodeo, egg hunt, and drinking. That is how we used every moment to catch up and meet new family members every year at the Chavez’s Ranch.
Despite having been born in good health, before my third birthday I ended up in a hospital bed being treated for a serious health condition. I do not remember the events or my pain as I went through the treatment or recovery process. However, I do remember my parents learning American Sign Language from someone who came to our home. Then, I was still ignorant of the difference between Deaf and hearing. As I grew up, my parents always told me stories from when I was sick and how I became Deaf. That’s why I had brain surgery. Then, that explained why I had a Ventriculoperitoneal Shunt that went from my brain to my belly. However, there was something more; there was someone who is very important to me that gave me life through a blood transfusion.
By the time I was five years old, my parents would take me to visit my grandparents and great grandparents at their home. At first I didn’t really want to give them any hugs, because I didn’t know who they were to me. However, my father pushed me near them to get a hug from them. At that time, I didn’t realize they were giving me more than just hugs. My grandparents and great-parents were giving me a blessing with their thumb against my forehead that must have been something symbolic in Catholicism and gave me a good pat on my head. Still, I had no idea what was going on.
In fact, there were many family traditions I still didn’t understand. My father for instance would take me to the San Felipe de Neri Catholic Church at the Old Town in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The old, historic Church was built in 1793 and is very beautiful with double spires. My father would attempt to explain the Catholic liturgy, the praying, singing, kneeling and the gestures. However, I could not grasp the ceremony because I am Deaf and there was no sign language interpreter, as many churches have today, to assist with my understanding the service. I always wanted to participate in the Eucharist, also known as communion. When the congregation would rise to line up to receive communion, my dad would rise and make his way, and I wanted to follow him. He would always simply say no, without any further explanation.
Nevertheless, my parents still took me to visit the families that I am related to. When I went to my grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ house that was a place where the entire family would gather. I remember my parents using sign language in an attempt to introduce the various people to me and explaining that they were relatives of mine. My aunts and uncles always gave me nice smiles, which made me uncomfortable with them, because I was shy and still, obviously, did not know who they were to me.
I also remember how much I enjoyed watching my grandfather and the Chavez brothers gathering, setting up their instruments in order to practice their music. The guitars, drums, and piano always fascinated me. I used to occasionally touch my uncle’s guitar in order to feel the vibrations. They even played a 13th birthday song for me. I wish I had known what they were singing about; however, they sang in Spanish, and I could not hear them. I recall the positive audience response to their performance at a festival in Old Town. The reaction was obviously positive and it was fun to watch.
I remember when I was young my father took me to the family reunion at my great grandparents Chavez’s Ranch in Torrance, New Mexico. I recall there were children standing a semi-circle near the rodeo fence, and I watched most of the teenage boys try to ride a calf, or capture with a rope either sheep or calf to tie their legs quickly. There was so much fun and cheering over there. I told my father that I really wanted to try those type of activities and my father told me no. I, then, asked my father why I couldn’t participate and tried to convince him that I was strong and could do it. My father was concerned about my health condition. I didn’t realize that it could impact me if I were involved in dangerous sports such as this. This is because from the time of my hospital stay when I was a toddler I had had the Ventriculoperitoneal Shunt placed. My father simply did not want anything to happen to me that might result in serious injury from my Ventriculoperitoneal Shunt.
My grandmother told me in 2010 that my grandpa’s father was not doing well. My reaction was “oh okay,” and I asked my grandmother, “How bad is he doing?” She told me that all of my great uncles and aunts are taking turns caring for him. However, inside, my instinct was bothering me and it was reminding of me of when my father pushed me to give a hug to my great-grandfather a long time ago. Then, I took the time to ask myself, “What am I suppose to do about my great grandfather?” As my gut feeling continued to tell me to go, so I decided to go visit my great-grandfather and check on his health. At 5 years old, I had to be pushed into visiting and hugging my grandparents and great-grandparents, now my own instinct was pushing me to be closer to my family. I had an opportunity to visit my great grandfather prior to his passing away. I, then, decided to go to my great grandfather’s house and knock on his door.
Every time it was answered by one of my great aunts or uncles, and I took the time to be polite and introduce myself to them. I explained to them, with pencil and paper, which who I am the son of Joe Chavez and my grandfather is Leo Chavez. They all were pleased with my surprise visits. I told them that I am here to visit my great-grandfather and see how he is doing and asked is that all right? They always said, oh yes that my great-grandfather would love to see me and they went to explain to my great-grandfather about who I am. I asked my great aunt or uncle what my great-grandfather would like me to do to keep him company; they said, the only thing my great-grandfather would like would be for me to play checkers with him. I said, okay sure, I do not mind playing checkers with him for a while. I noticed my great-grandfather’s mood getting excited when we would play checkers. My great aunt or uncle would set up the checkerboard for us to play. The checkerboard and the checkers were huge as compared to a standard game. The pieces were designed for someone who might have a sight problem to be able to play.
While, I played with my great-grandfather I noticed his charming personality. He was so funny to me. He didn’t like for me to take his checker pawns and especially, became bitter when I would take his crown pawn. The most hilarious part was when he played checkers with me and would cheat in order to win the game. I would be totally speechless when he cheated. I kept telling myself that it is not all about me, but about making my great grandfather enjoy the game. It is not all about winning. Sometime, one needs to set aside their ego for a greater good and enjoying my time with my great-grandfather was the greater good. The quality moment with my great-grandfather was more important than the competition of the game. Because my great-grandfather had sacrificed, first before I was born, I, now understand why my father was trying to teach me to show great respect for my great-grandparents and grandparents. My growth was evident in my putting aside my desires to make sure my elder family member was enjoying himself. Maturity and growth come about through sacrifice and by serving. My coming of age came about when I naturally chose to put another ahead of me.
So, even when I am far away from my home, and I feeling homesick. Far away from my grandmother’s kitchen, far away from the ranch and the rodeo, far away from the church, and even far away from those funny chess games with my great-grandfather, I have a piece of the Chavez family warmth flowing through my veins. Therefore, I realize that family bond is very important to me and fundamental to a good life. Family has made me cherish the memories of what I went through growing up in my family heritage. When it is time for me to leave my family to go somewhere else that separates me from them, I look back on how much I value my New Mexican culture and identity. In fact, even when I leave, I know I will always carry my memory with me because I know now that it was my grandfather who saved my life by donating his blood for me when I was sick.