Teaching Without Words
I am awakened by a low, rhythmic thumping coming from the kitchen. The thumping is accompanied by the murmurs of the hens outside of my room, compelling me to get up. I untangle myself from my mosquito-netted bed and pad across the cold dirt floor to unlatch the wooden door leading to the outdoor kitchen. The sun is still barely rising over the lush Nicaraguan hills, and I rub the sleep from my eyes. Crossing the yard littered with shovels and piles of dirt – the evidence of Lorena Stove construction, the reason I am living in Las Mesitas, Nicaragua for 6 weeks – I reach the kitchen to find the source of the thudding that woke me up.
My host mother, Luvinda, is standing at the kitchen table with her back to me, bent over a mound of dough which she is pounding into a tortilla. She looks up to greet me, asking me in Spanish coated with a Nicaraguan accent how I slept. Very well, I tell her in my own terribly gringa accent, and she goes back to her work. I lean awkwardly against the kitchen table watching Luvinda. She shapes the maza, a thick dough made of hand-ground corn and water, into round discs which she throws onto plates on the fire, flips, and then tosses onto an already-tall and steaming stack of tortillas. She has prepared a huge plastic bucket full of maza which will yield enough tortillas for everyone in the family, myself included, to have with each meal that day. I watch her for a little while longer, and then ask if I can try making one.
Luvinda’s rhythm is interrupted as she pulls up her head to look at me. Sizing up my hands, she questions my ability with her eyes, and nods hesitantly. She pulls two wads of maza out of the bucket and hands one to me, turning her back to me. When she realizes that I’m just standing there holding my ball of dough aimlessly, Luvinda smiles and remembers that I’m just a gringa.
We begin a follow-the-leader game of tortilla making. She slaps the ball of dough flat with exaggerated motions and raises her eyebrows towards my ball of dough indicating that I do the same. I clumsily bat at mine. Luvinda’s maza becomes smooth and level; mine resembles a topographical map of Montana. She then begins to strike the flattened dough so that it turns on the table, her other hand cupping the outer edge to form it into a circle. It looks easy enough, so I try imitating her. Mine wobbles and bunches, not coming close to round. The dough sticks to my fingers as I try to mash into some kind of recognizable shape.
Luvinda looks at my progress, shaking her head and sighing. She pushes me out of the way and takes over, effortlessly reshaping my mess into a perfect circle, then nodding to show me that was how it was done. She picks up her tortilla and tips it onto a plate that balances over the fire. I attempt to put mine on, but it crumples and folds over on itself. She quickly snatches it up and rearranges it on the plate. When the tortilla inflates with hot air, she pinches the outer edge between two fingers and flips it over, revealing a perfectly browned side. I try to pinch mine but burn my finger on the hot plate, drawing back my hand and waving it in the air. Luvinda chuckles and flips my semi-burnt tortilla for me. She knows better than to let me near the fire again, and removes both of the tortillas when they are done, tossing them onto the stack of finished ones. She places her hands on her hips and cocks her head to one side as if to say “not as easy as it looks, huh?” But I’m determined to make a tortilla and grab another hunk of dough. Luvinda shrugs, and we begin the process again.
Luvinda is a woman of gestures more than words. She teaches me with the rhythm of her hands, the movements of her body, the nod of her chin. This time I listen closely to the cadence of her slapping, joining it with my own. We don’t talk, but her eyes smile at mine. Her steady, confident thumps call; mine, shy and clumsy, answer. My hands become more certain of their actions, our two rolling beats rising to form a cadence. I can see that my own circle of dough is nearly as smooth and round as hers.
“This is why our hands are curved,” she whispers to me as if telling a secret, her rough hand cupping the edge of the tortilla around my soft one. We lay our tortillas side by side on the plate over the fire. They sizzle satisfyingly, and inflate with warm air. She removes hers and, hesitating, I carefully peel mine from the plate without burning myself. I ceremoniously set it on top of hers on the heap of steaming tortillas. I want to eat it right then, but it’s so much more gratifying to know that later that day someone in my family will enjoy a tortilla that I made myself. I’m filled with even more pride when I see Luvinda smile her sideways grin at me, exposing her crooked, capped teeth.
“Ya sí puedes,” she pronounces proudly. “Now you can.”
– Ellen F, AMIGOS Alum