Have you ever been to a Maya birthday party? One of the things I love most about living on the Yucatan Peninsula and spending time with the local people here is being invited to participate in life, traditional life, the experiences of daily living. It is so enriching to be able to share a meal in a Maya home, to help in the kitchen, to learn new recipes from local Maya women, to visit with the chickens and say hello to the pigs, and to be invited to share in family events. (NOTE: You will not find any pictures of people from the party here, only of the food. Sometimes it just does not feel appropriate to take photos of people and this was one of those days.)
A few days ago, Max and I were invited to a Maya birthday party! How fun! The birthday girl was turning seven and was celebrating without the help of her two front teeth. What a cutie. She is the niece of my good friend and shaman, Francisco, the daughter of one of his 8 siblings. Francisco’s siblings and their families all still live in close proximity in the small pueblo where they were born. The cousins play together, and aunts and uncles visit on a regular basis. At the party, everyone was gathered together (at least 20 people) in the traditional kitchen of the birthday girl’s family. Her grandmother was in charge of the food and a HUGE pot of relleno negro one sat on the open fire while the younger women worked together patting out tortillas and cooking them on a flat pan over the fire.
The sharing of a meal is the most important part and the central theme to any birthday in this village. If the family has no money for gifts or cake, they will sacrifice one of the chickens and make into a meal to be shared. I have been in a home where one chicken fed about 15 people!
On this happy occasion, fatty shreds of pork flavored the black, corn based relleno negro. It’s a bit pudding-like, made principally from corn starch with chilies, though not too spicy. I must admit, it is a bit of an acquired taste as the consistency of the hot dish is a bit odd, but the spice and the savory pork flavor came through to save the day.
Three tables were set up in the long, stick-hut kitchen. It was dark inside with a bit of diffused sunlight sneaking through the spaces in the tree branches that make up the walls. Chairs ranged from plastic, some plied on top of each other because they were broken and it took two chairs to make strong enough seating for one person, to small wooden stools and even simple cut logs. Francisco (our host) and his sister made sure everyone had seating and was safe from ending up in the dirt! There is such a feeling of goodwill and happiness and such a desire to share.
When everyone was seated bowls of the warm black pork-infused pudding appeared in front of each person and big bottles of coke-a-cola took center stage on each table. Piles of piping-hot tortillas were serves on small plastic plates wrapped in cloth to keep them warm and the younger women continued patting out and grilling more tortillas as the party ensued, making sure there was a steady stream of the rustic staple to ensure that no one would go hungry.
While most everyone used their tortillas as eating utensils, Max and I were graciously given spoons as the party hostess understood that we might not be used to eating with tortillas. (Of course we would have done just fine, but it was a kind gesture!) We ate until we were satisfied, but I have learned something very important about eating in the home of a Maya family. If you finish your food, more magically appears in front of you! And so, I was careful to allow some relleno negro to remain in the bottom of my bowl.
When everyone was finished eating, a store bought yellow cake with white and yellow frosting was placed in front of the birthday girl. Everyone gathered around and sang Las Mañanitas, the traditional Mexican birthday song (lyrics below). It’s an endearing song about waking up on the morning of your birthday. The girl’s aunt had her cell phone and recorded everyone singing. (I know, a cell phone recording of a typical Maya birthday in a tiny village in the interior of the Yucatan seems so odd, doesn’t it!)
We stayed a bit longer, just enjoying the flow of Mayan and Spanish around us. One of the cousins, a 10-year-old girl named Sarah, asked if she could try on my sunglasses. I explained to her why they were so dark. She noticed my blue eyes in contrast to her brown ones and I told her that her eyes looked like chocolate. Max played a game of hiding a kernel of corn in one of tow closed fists and allows the kids to see if they could pick the right one. Lots of giggling ensued.
And then it was time to go. We said our good-byes to lots of waving and glowing smiles, blessings, and we-will-see-each-other-agains.
What a delightful afternoon!
Hugs and Butterflies,
(Loosely translated into English)
These are the mornings that
King David used to sing Today, being your saint's day, We sing them to you
Wake up, my good, wake up See that it has already dawned Already the birds sing The moon has already set
How beautiful is the morning When I come to greet you We all come with pleasure And pleasure to congratulate you
The day you were born
All the flowers were born In the christening line The Nightingales sang
Dawn is already dawning
Already the light of day day us Get up in the morning See that it has already dawned
If I could bring you down The stars and a star To show you How much I love you
With jasmine and flowers This day I want to remember Today as your saint's day We come to sing to you