street tacos

Of Tacos y Heartbreak

by | November 10, 2022

The tacos I eat here in the U.S. are not the tacos my family eats in Mexico. They come close but there’s something missing. Maybe it’s the salt.  

I love tacos like I love sad Mexican love songs. Boleros, rancheras, al pastor, asada? Soy, como dicen, barrilito sin fondo. Give me everything that’s hot and burning and hurts as it goes down. Give me seconds. I want it sloppy, running down my hand y saladito. That’s how I love my pain—well seasoned. I don’t remember my life before either was a part of me. Both the tastebuds and the heartache an unintended inheritance of forced migration. My parents packed the gritos and sad mariachis in their bags as they made their way north to Southern California. Music first heard on a small radio in a kitchen in a pueblo in Guanajuato and on a rancho in Sinaloa would be the soundtrack to my formative years. Just like the chile and grilled meats that dad made on Sundays when my grandparents visited.

All if it is part of a home that I’ll never really know but will always long for. That cliché of clichés. I’m not even going to say it, though, I will admit that maybe it is the longing and not the taste that’s the real difference between the Mexican food de aquí y the Mexican food de allá.

There are tacos that make my eyes swell with nostalgia. When my ex-husband, Gabriel, moved out I played Nosotros, a song by Eydie Gorme and Los Panchos, on repeat. The song fused with the memory of everything we’d shared. It merged with the last big trip that we took even though we were both struggling to accept that being together wasn’t what we needed anymore. Love and tacos have that in common—sometimes, despite discomfort, we keep consuming more than we should.

Que nos queremos tanto
Debemos separarnos
No me preguntes más

In the U.S., Gabriel and I sought out make-shift parking lots with lines of people waiting to approach steaming meats. The vapor rose and wafted across those assembled as if waiting for a blessing from an anointed being. And maybe they were. What else would you call someone who turns a dead animal into a miracle? Isn’t that transfiguration? The Catholics reading this might call this blasphemy but that’s only because they haven’t had good tacos.

Sometimes, clandestine taquerías Gabriel and I had found and fallen in love disappeared due to health inspectors, never to be seen again. These closures sent us on more hunts. Searching for something we knew was once there but was now gone was how we bonded.

In Corona, where we lived in my parents converted garage, we found melt in your mouth carne asada in the back of a liquor store on Sixth Street. They had a competitor across the street that had actual seating and sometimes we’d go there if the liquor store was too busy. It wasn’t always a storefront we wanted. There were dirt lots and houses where someone’s uncle would set up their grill for the night. At parties we’d lament that our hosts should’ve hired the taquero from so-and-sos party because the tacos on our plates were just “okay.” If we felt like driving, we’d head out to King Taco, which at that time was THE taco place.

But nothing was ever enough. Nothing ever felt complete or filling.

Riverside Avenue is a long street. From North Rialto, it takes you over the 10 freeway, past a fuel tank farm and through a region dominated by the warehouse industry. Eventually, the avenue crosses the Santa Ana River, leading into Riverside proper but before driving over the mostly dry riverbed, in a dirt lot where truckers park their big rigs while not in use, a taquero would set up shop. If you weren’t looking, if you were simply driving the pothole riddled roads, you’d miss him. The lights above his grill could have easily been confused with security lights in a big rig garage. That was the point. Confuse the authorities. Never let them know where you really are. Luckily, Gabriel and I knew what we were looking for and we found Him.

There were already a bunch of Mexicans lined up. Others were leaning against haphazardly yet tightly parked cars, chowing down. Small tacos made with the good tortillas, not that Guerrero shit that tastes like cardboard. The meat on the trompo dripped marinated fat onto the layers of pork stacked and packed as it spun round and round. The taquero’s meat cleaver pounded down on freshly grilled asada, chorizo, and pollo being minced on a thick wooden cutting board. If you’ve never enjoyed roadside tacos, that’s unfortunate. If you only eat at Grade A certified establishments, you deserve whatever taco you get.

I probably ordered dos de asada y uno de chorizo, while Gabriel probably ordered cuatro de al pastor y dos de asada. That was usually what we got. Or maybe he got all al pastor, since it was his favorite. This taquero also had nopales asados which is uncommon at tacos stands but definitely a treat. I asked for extra tortillas to make a taco de nopal, and the night became perfect. Gabriel and I leaning against our car, eating tacos so good they were illegal, and savoring every bit of this satisfaction. We didn’t know when we’d have it again.

Mexicans, at least the Mexicans I know, are very passionate about where they’re from. I grew up among immigrants, people from the homeland I’ll never really know, and that meant that the version of Mexico they remember and have passed on to their kids, to folks like me, is one they’ve built with love and longing. This also rings true for food and cooking. Just about every Mexican I know claims that their regional cuisine is THE BEST, is para chuparte los dedos. And every Mexican is wrong and every Mexican is right, I imagine. Gabriel’s family talked about the food in Mexico City like one does about an old lover. Not one that broke our heart, but one that we abandoned. That we willfully walked out on and now regret leaving. The one we’d like to run into again, hoping they give us a second chance.

Gabriel’s mother and sisters, and even a couple of his brothers, were amazing cooks. Gabriel himself was a great cook. He made the most delicious oven roasted potatoes. Except for my ex-suegra, each woman had a specialty that ranged from camarones aguachile to menudo. My ex-suegra was good at almost every dish. I really miss her, still. She taught me how to make the perfect chilaquiles, how to spread masa for tamales, and how to properly tortear. My ex-suegra also welcomed me without judgment when I had been asked to leave my home for having sex. I think of her often. One of the hardest things about divorce after you’ve been with someone for fifteen years is that you lose extended family when the marriage ends. One of the reasons that I stayed was that I loved my in-laws. It is not something I am proud of or something that was fair to Gabriel or even me, but it is something that is true. The thought of never showing up to my suegra’s early in the morning, to listen to chisme from her rancho over cafecito con pan again, undid me emotionally.

My in-laws were hilarious and hung on to that humor like only people who have seen the worst of life can. Everything was an albur; they clowned on each other non-stop the same way I imagine they had when they were children, and they drank. And I drank and drank. On a lot of those drinking nights there’d be food. Always food. My body grew with my sadness. On those long nights of drinking and eating, nostalgia would always show up. Nostalgia for Mexico City, for life before.

I was smoking with my neighbor one night and we talked about how shitty it is not to be able to go home. My neighbor is Haitian. In the U.S., people, often white but others as well, have the misguided notion that immigrants leave their homeland because they want to, because they understand how much better it is here. No one looks into why things might seem better somewhere else or what is left behind. If you grow up around people who have left their homes, who had no other choice besides extreme hardship or migration, you know that a lot of people die waiting to go back.

Before even going to Mexico City, on those long drinking nights, I’d sit savoring whatever dish was in front of me, maybe a quesadilla de hongos freshly fried with chile rojo, and at some point the conversation would turn to food. The best tortas, the best tacos, the best aguamiel, romeritos en navidad, tortas de tamal (which I thought were a myth before seeing them in person), and tacos en el Zócalo.

Any time tacos were mentioned there’d be an argument over what tacos were good in Rialto or Fontana or Baldwin Park, but eventually someone would say, “No, no, no. Los de México, esos si son tacos.”

And there we’d be again, in the middle of the Zócalo in the mid-1980s. Back to that early love, the one we never thought we’d leave. The one we thought would be forever.

No es falta de cariño
Te quiero con el alma

In 2013, Gabriel visited home for the first time since 1988, the year that he migrated.  I went back with him. After twelve-years together it would be the first and last time we’d take a big trip together.

We didn’t stay in Mexico City proper; there was no family really left there to stay with. Instead, we stayed with my concuños family in Nezahualtcoyotl, lovingly called Neza. My parents were not big city people. My dad grew up in a rancho in Sinaloa. Then an ejido, it was rural with lots of dirt and horses and donkeys. My grandparents had mango trees, tamarindo, and chickens. My mom grew up in a pueblo in Guanajuato. Along its cobblestoned streets, colorful homes press against each other. In the morning you can smell wood burning, the day’s fires being started. At least that’s how I remember it. Neither place was like Neza. Much less like Mexico City.

One day, we set out to the Zócalo. Museums and iconic buildings surrounded us and since it was December there was an ice-skating rink. Chilangos on ice skates in the middle of this ancient place seemed so out of place to me but also very much made sense in the kaleidoscope that is Mexico City.  Up and down the side streets bordering the Zócalo are clandestine street vendors, their goods spread out on tarps or mats on the ground. These enterprising capitalinos warn each other with whistles and cellphones when cops begin to make their rounds. I was impressed by how, as soon as the whistling made its way to where we were walking, the makeshift shops and vendors disappeared in one swoop. We toured the Templo Mayor, the main temple of the Mexica peoples unearthed shortly after Gabriel was born. My concuño said that when they first unearthed the temple there was no rope keeping visitors out of the archaeological site; anyone could just walk around in the ruins. Now, there’s a walkway you must stay on; like with everything, the freedom to roam became limited. After the Templo Mayor we went into the Catedral Metropolitana. Finally, we walked by the Palacio Nacional with its grand doors. A year later those same doors were set on fire when protests erupted after the disappearance of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers School. Mexico is rife with metaphor.

Food is everywhere in the Zócalo. I had eaten a small breakfast because I anticipated a gastronomical adventure. My appetite was immediately pulled towards the taco vendors. Early in our visit we ate tacos de carnitas on some street in Neza, but those were mediocre at best. The meat was dry and the cueritos rubbery. I dealt with an upset stomach all day. In the Zócalo, tacos were something else.

We stopped at a puesto that was selling al pastor, a descendant of Lebanese shawarma that migrated to Mexico early last century. Layers of marinated pork stacked with pineapple and onion, spinning and sizzling on a spit, a trompo for my trompa. There were a handful of stools with the vinyl ripped and duct taped back together. At any self-respecting taco establishment, the priority is the meat.

I could have ordered asada or buche, but the al pastor eclipsed everything else. It was like the first time I had good sex—I didn’t know it could be like that. I ate seven tacos. I didn’t want to stop but my body told me to keep going and I listened to my body. Nothing I’d eaten in an empty lot or at liquor store counter or food truck in California compared to the level of excellence that was served to me on a bright blue plastic plate. I watched the taquero slice with such swiftness that his knife was not a tool but an extension of his thick brown arm. These tacos had to have been made by hands that inherited this particular kind of magic making. Not everyone can be a taquero because not everyone is called. This holy man awoke at 3 am to prepare adobos and meats, toast chiles. He had a wife who chopped cilantro and onions alongside him. Each small tortilla was cooked on the plancha that had been oiled with meat drippings. Next, it was stuffed with pork and topped with cilantro, onions, pineapple, and papalo, a delicious herb and digestive that’s offered at taquerias across Mexico. I couldn’t decide between the salsas and alternated between roja y verde.

We sat there eating, my stomach feeling about to burst, washing taco after taco down with Mexican 7-up, the most perfect of sodas on the most perfect of days. The sun was out, the scent of the city surrounded us, and the sounds of cumbias sonideras playing from a booth selling bootleg CDs could be heard between the “no mames guey” “Cuanto?” “Tres de chorizo.” I sat on that seat next to the then love of my life who I’d married when I had no idea what marriage or forever or leaving meant. I wanted to eat the entire trompo if it meant holding on to that moment with Gabriel. He kept repeating, “Te dije.” I told you. And he was right. There in the middle of Mexico City, the home he’d always wanted me to visit, Gabriel and I laughed and talked like two people who know all the joy and sadness inside of each other do, easily and with hope. We had found what we couldn’t find in any of the dirt lots, any liquor store, or storefront—the perfect meal for the end of our marriage.

Te juro que te adoro
Y en nombre de ese amor
Y por tu bien
Te digo adiós [1]

[1] Eydie Gorme and Trio Los Panchos. Eydie Gorme canta en español con Trio Los Panchos: Amor. “Nosotros.” 1964.

Isabel Quintero is an award-winning writer from the Inland Empire of Southern California. She has authored several award winning books for young people including, Gabi, A Girl in Pieces (Cinco Puntos Press) and the graphic novel Photographic: The Life of Graciela Iturbide (Getty Publications). Her most recent book is, My Papi Has a Motorcycle (Kokila), and has several more on the way. Sometimes she also writes essays and poetry. When she’s not writing she enjoys hiking, laughing, cooking, and momming.