Tortillas and motorcycles: my family, its memories and the opinions in between

Students packed the auditorium for a diversity panel at the Ohio University High School Journalism Workshop. It wasn't crowded just because the panel was mandatory, but because diversity was a controversial topic even in a world where Donald Trump wasn't yet president. It was 2016, the summer before my senior year of high school.

The conversation quickly became heated, and the adults lost control of it. Everyone was angry and divisive, especially while talking about Trump. Most people seemed to be anti-Trump, except for one kid in the front who stuck out like a red "Make America Great Again" thumb.

A student in the middle of the stadium-like seating raised her hand and said she didn't understand how this kid in her school, who was half Mexican, could support Trump. She absolutely could not wrap her mind around it. How could he turn on his own people?

I raised my hand, though my public speaking skills were not exactly reliable.

The thing is, it's really hard to explain my family in two seconds unless I want to sound like an idiot. That's exactly what I sounded like when I said, "I'm a fourth-generation Mexican," into the microphone and immediately wanted to sew my mouth shut and never speak again.

The crowd roared with laughter at me, a white girl who couldn't explain herself, and I immediately tried to course-correct.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry. That was really insanely dumb of me to say. I was just trying to explain my family really quickly, and it came out wrong."

I started over. I explained that my family is very proud of their legal status in the United States, their conservative beliefs and their support for Donald Trump. I also made sure to make it clear that I didn't share those beliefs.

"What I am trying to say is that you can't always put people in a box because of their demographic," I said.

Loud murmurs. The rest of the auditorium did not agree. I sank into my chair, wishing I could become two-dimensional and slide to the floor. I remember ringing in my ears.

The conversation escalated from there. The adults failed to calm us down until a Latina counselor at the top of the auditorium, who described herself as "a Venezuelan queen overlooking you all," took the microphone.

As someone who is very clearly white and has not undergone the discrimination that non-white people experience, I realized that during a diversity panel, I really should just shut up and listen. But at the same time, other than my really bad intro, what I said was relevant to the point of the conversation.

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If only I hadn't been such a devil's advocate.

If only I could have articulated it better. It could have been constructive.

The panel ended eventually, and we all filed out of the auditorium. I was outside the doors waiting for my friend to catch up, contemplating where I could buy a needle and thread to sew my mouth shut forever, when two Latina students came outside and glared at me as they passed. And probably rightly so.

"'A fourth-generation Mexican,'" one of them said. "This gringa."


It took me a lot of time -- and a lot of mistakes -- before I figured out where I fit in my family.

When I was little, I looked like a German Dora. My mom gave me Dora's bowlish bang cut, but with thin blonde hair. My hair has since darkened to brown, but it has always been clear that I am a white person.

English is my first and only fluent language. My family pressured me to take Spanish in high school, but I only took three years of it so I could make room for journalism classes. When I turned 15, my birthday passed without a quinceanera.

If my entire childhood had passed in San Antonio, I would still look the same. But I would be fluent in Spanish and would have worn a big, poofy dress on my fifteenth birthday.

I was born in Ohio, and I grew up in Ohio. I almost always lost in games of cornhole and wished I lived somewhere more interesting. I scuffed my knees while riding my bike, I stayed up late to wait for imaginary fairies to pop out from behind tree leaves, I fought to be the boss of my little brother and I reached my tongue out to catch thick snowflakes from a packed winter sky.


Regardless of the religious differences among my relatives, they are mostly united on the front of immigration -- and their thoughts don't fit into the tidy statistics on Latinx public opinion.

Before I delve into this, I should make it clear that I do not oppose or accept these beliefs. I simply respect them.

This story is just about my family, and with my family comes strong opinions, which are sometimes very unpopular.


The first time I can remember visiting my relatives in San Antonio, Texas, I was a little towhead Ohioan who liked to listen to my relatives talk. And gossip. And chastise.

I soaked it all in: The age-old sibling rivalry between my great-grandma Hilda and my great-grand aunt Olga. The switches from Spanish to English to a harsher, rapid-fire Spanish when conversation turned to Stephen Colbert or the President or how a family drama went down.

I remember thinking of the house as "the place where too many people lived." At the time, the little house hosted Walter "Bud" Hersey; the ex-wife Bud remarried in the 1990s, Hilda Hersey; their daughter, Lynda Hersey, a teacher; and their son, Eddie Hersey, a kind man who is good with kids but is currently serving time in prison.

We spent most of our San Antonio trips visiting this little house. I loved my family and its bustle, but I grew tired of the Febreze-soaked furniture, the three dogs that could smell fear and the constant yelling.

Through a high school physics unit on sound, I found out my hearing level is 100 decibels lower than average. I attribute this slight hearing loss to occasionally blaring my earphones and attending concerts, but especially to my time in this little house, where Fox News blared in two separate rooms and my relatives yakked in Spanish or English -- but never Spanglish -- in the cramped kitchen.

Back then, my great-grandparents' hearing was really bad, and it's even worse now. Yelling to one another was how all conversations were conducted; when people in the house yelled at each other, somehow it became even louder.

Today, my great-grandma Hilda is 86, and my great-grandpa, Walter "Bud" Hersey, turns 88 in May. While they do not live in this house anymore, yelling is still the acceptable volume for conversation.

My great-grand-uncle George's house was a quiet break from this funny little house with too many big personalities. When I was older and my family visited his home on our trips to Texas, George pulled framed pictures from the walls to show us the faces of long-gone relatives and younger, goofier versions of the living.

The one face I can clearly remember from those sepia-toned pictures is that of my great-great grandma Armandina, a motorcycle-riding flapper. Armandina's face and her badassery cut through all the noise of the trips to San Antonio.

Years later, I asked Great-Grand-Uncle George about her. I found out Armandina Flores-Pena stole moments on her friend's motorcycle until she was 61. But she didn't ride motorcycles as much after she got married and traded in her last name for "Rodriguez."

When Armandina had kids and grandkids, her role became "Mama." This is what her daughter, my great-grandma Hilda, called her.


Through the cracks in her dementia, Hilda can almost always recall the teachers who scorned her for her Mexican-ness: her accent, her skin and her hair.

These memories can wring out bitter laughter, but more often they bring tears to her eyes. Every time I visit her, she tells anyone who will listen about those devil teachers.

"They told me I would drop out of school to marry a Mexican bum," Great-Grandma will say, then point to my white great-grandpa. "I tell my kids they only got it half right. I married their father."


My great-grandparents both have dementia, but Hilda is typically a bit more aware than Bud.

When I say hello or goodbye to him with a hug and a kiss on the cheek, most of the time a tear leaks out of one eye. Maybe it's because he understands I love him, but doesn't always remember who I am.

Bud was born and raised in Maine. He grew up poor. Once he told me a story about how going to a movie cost 10 cents when he grew up, but his family couldn't afford even that. Then he laughed his loud, gasping laugh that's strangely infectious.

Whenever Bud speaks Spanish, it's meant to be ironic. He'll sip his coffee, say "muy bueno," then crack up.

Typically, this comes after Hilda does something like toasting to "Salud, dinero y amor!" -- health, money and love -- at a restaurant, and everyone clinks glasses.

Bud used to be fluent in Spanish, but he didn't learn from his wife or her family. He learned Spanish from a guy in a bar.

"He wanted to learn English, and I wanted to learn Spanish," Bud said.

So they met at the bar every day for an hour, trading languages and downing drinks.


Armandina had spoiled her kids, refusing to let Hilda and her four siblings cook. So when Hilda married Bud -- who served as a Morse code operator in the Korean War -- and had the baby who would become my grandma, Hilda could cook only with a pressure cooker.

But Armandina, or Mama, taught her granddaughter -- my grandmother -- how to cook classic Mexican dishes.

My grandma, Barbara, was 11 years old when she cooked flour tortillas for the first time. By the time she turned 16, she was cooking almost every single meal for her five siblings.

My grandma's recipes are never the same, because my grandma doesn't measure out her ingredients. Neither did her grandmother.

My own grandma's cooking is amazing, but her resume is all over the place in the best way: She started her own Mexican restaurant, got a degree in religion and now works in computer security. She was also the officiant at my parents' wedding.

I can't forget the cobalt blue Harley-Davidson motorcycle she used to ride with my papaw. On that Harley, they visited Frank Lloyd Wright mansions and Myrtle Beach and one really dangerous road down south with their motorcycling friends.

My grandma clearly inherited Armandina's badassery, but the rest of the family history was news to me.

George has traced Armandina's side of the family as far back as 1691, which is when our ancestor Nicolas Saenz was born in Monterrey, Mexico. Armandina's parents, Abran Flores-Pena and Antonia (with the maiden name de los Santos), entered the United States legally in 1900.

By custom, the Spanish put the husband's last name in front of the wife's maiden name. Abran and Antonia's official U.S. documents dropped the "Pena," and they became the Flores family.

We can trace the line of Armandina's husband, Eduardo Rodriguez, back to 1856, when my great-great-great-great grandfather, Jesus Rodriguez, was born. George hasn't been able to find much before that, since many family records were burned during the 1910 Mexican Revolution.

My great-great-great grandfather on Eduardo's side, Rodriguez de Carvajal, was a servant to Marques de Aguayo, a Spanish military leader who oversaw the Spanish mission that is now San Antonio. At the age of nine, Rodriguez helped build this settlement, the Alamo and four other missions later in his life before settling in Monterrey, Mexico.

At 11, my great-great-grandfather Eduardo Rodriguez, along with two skinny 12-year-olds, reinstalled historic church bells in the San Augustine Catholic church in Laredo, Texas, in 1912. At the time, the church bells were 127 years old.

Catholicism ran deep in the family, including the Pena family on Armandina's side.

"They had their own private pew at Catholic church, and they had a special room in their home for Wednesday church worship," George said. "Being wealthy and being Catholic went hand in hand."

This was when the Mexican Revolution forced a mass exodus of people from Mexico -- including clergy of the Latter-Day Saints, known colloquially as "Mormons." Some of these missionaries met Armandina's mother, Antonia, in 1918, after they moved to Laredo, Texas.

This meeting, and one later held at Antonia's house that featured lemonade, set off one of the biggest family dramas I had never heard of.

The missionaries taught their beliefs to Antonia, who also went by Tonya, and her three oldest children, including Armandina. Scandal ensued.

"The Catholic priests excommunicated them publicly, while Tonya cleaned out her private church room in her home," George said. "The family never fully recovered socially, and it even affected them financially because many people stopped doing business with the family."

It didn't stop Tonya, or her daughter Armandina. In 1940, Armandina's daughter Hilda would be baptized as a Mormon in the Rio Grande.

George grew up as a Mormon and remains a Mormon, along with many of my other relatives in this part of the family. Mormons place a lot of emphasis on family genealogy, which is partly why George has gone to such great lengths to remember our family history.

Some relatives have since left the faith. My grandma Barbara was once a licensed teacher in the Unity Church, and I have at least one great-aunt who reverted to Catholicism. I am not Mormon, either.


"My life was very normal, but in Spanish and English," George said. "We spoke English at school and with friends, but always spoke in Spanish with my parents."

He is Armandina's youngest child.

He fondly recalls his Mama's food, "and, of course, all the hugs and kisses because Latins are very expressive and touchy-feely."

This is a generalization, but it reminds me of how great-grandma Hilda always has a "Papasito!" and a kiss on the cheek whenever my uncle or brother enter the room.


So, put simply: my relatives don't support illegal immigrants in the United States, and they have a history of not doing so.

"Papa organized a printers' union in Laredo in the 1940s because cheap Mexican labor competed with Mexican-American [laborers]," George said. "Mama's brothers helped establish the Border Patrol in Laredo because so many Mexican criminals caused problems in their community."

George's Papa, Eduardo, also helped organize the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), which at the time worked to integrate Mexican immigrants.

"Their community leaders wanted to be seen as 'American,' not 'Mexican,'" George said. "Bottom line was, be proud of your family roots in Mexico, but be American for your future and children. It's typical of all immigrant groups who have come to the USA."

Now, LULAC supports open borders and blanket amnesty. George does not support LULAC.

I know George as my great-grand-uncle. Google knows him as "El Conservador," a conservative, Spanish-speaking blogger and radio host.

Before he became "El Conservador," he worked for the government.

George was a member of the Reagan administration's transition team, then worked his way up to preparing speeches and travel plans for the president. He later worked at the Justice Department on immigration issues and police-community relations.

During George W. Bush's presidency, he worked in the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development. He was an office director in Houston, Texas, and later in West Virginia. After Hurricane Katrina, he worked for the Federal Emergency Management Agency's recovery program.

This year, he's been interviewed on Univision, a local Texas NPR station and, most recently, "Fox & Friends."

George was the only Spanish speaker Univision could find to provide a conservative viewpoint on the border wall.

When George first began making media appearances, he grew frustrated with the mainstream media.

George's hesitancy comes from a series of bad interviews over the years. One reporter hooked him up to a mic, trained the camera on him and asked for his opinion on the border issue as a Mexican-American.

George explained his father's opposition to illegal Mexican workers.

The reporter didn't air George's segment.

"I have learned to be very precise in my comments," he said.


My grandma taught me how to roll out tortillas using a rolling pin when I was little. Rolling out whole batches of tortillas was sometimes too much on my little arms, and I had to take breaks.

No tortilla was a perfect circle. One would be smaller than the rest, another would have a chunk missing, and all were lopsided in some way.

No matter the shape, everyone salivated at the smell of fresh tortillas and stood up for seconds a few minutes later.

Today, the tortilla-making process is faster, shinier. We've gone through several modern tortilla presses, but my grandma still measures her ingredients by saying, "We added a bit too much of this, so we should add more flour," or, "This looks about right."

There's no need to take breaks, unless I'm stopping to eat an ugly tortilla that I pressed too hard.

The tortilla press is not enough to do it all. First, Grandma kneads the ingredients, lets them rise, and flattens the dough into little spheres.

I join in and take the little spheres one at a time. I take one, smash it in my hands and flatten it on the hot tortilla press. I drag the almost-tortilla off the press and put it onto the even hotter pan.

My grandma grabs the edge of the tortilla, sometimes with a spatula but more likely with her bare fingers, to uncover the golden brown patches on the other side.

We always keep two tortillas on the pan longer than usual, just for my great-grandma Hilda. She likes hers a little burnt, with crispy charred marks.

The process has changed a little, but the end result hasn't. Anyone who strolls through the kitchen -- my brother, my father, my mother, my papaw, my great-grandma, my great-aunt, my great-uncle, my cousin, an old family friend, a new family friend -- always steals a fresh tortilla on their way out.

This is why one batch is never enough.