Ophelia’s Mijo

by Troy C. Thomas

This time of year for Americans is one of fantasy and folklore. For some it’s Halloween, but for my Mexican family this is the time for honoring and the rememberance of our ancestors. Dia de los Muertos. I’ll be honest, we never celebrated this holiday growing up in my family. But the theme was always present in Los Angeles and in the arts. The images and messages of the celebrations have always been exhibited in sculptures, paintings and film. 

 The other reason for the importance is this time of year is our ile’s Egungun festival. Ile(pronounced ē’lā) is the yoruba word for “house”. Which takes on a similar meaning  as what some would call their church, mosque or temple. Egungun(pronounce ā’gūn’gūn) is the ancestral realm. In the tradition of Ifa we practice ancestral veneration. It is one the biggest pillars of our tradition. During a festival there will be  displays of our family member’s photos, cooking of their favorite meals, dancing and prayer. It is a very intense celebration of where we’ve been and where we are at. 

So the beauty of “Halloween” is that I can connect with my family that is no longer here, also honor my Mexican culture and practice my spiritual path. 

This is a win win for me. This piece is me doing all three of the reasons why this time of year is so important for me. I want to honor Ophelia Thomas, my grandmother.  Mrs. Thomas was Mexican, born and raised in Southern California. She was born circa 1931. A very different world. One of intense segregation and classism. Her birth certificate actually designated her as ‘White” female, because they only classified US citizens as Black or White in Los Angeles. This little old lady was best friend. Thee first person to spoil me, she was my everything, the one  who taught me unconditional love. . It’s a familial cultural thing, the males get showered with love by the the women of their family. And I just so happened to luck up on the lady that loved to love on me. All of her experiences in life gave me the woman that I came to adore. I would sit for hours and either watch her cook or her tell me stories of her life. Sometime both simultaneously. It was weird because no one was ever around, the house would be completely empty.  

It started off as a small child watching her cook. A little rotund boy sitting on her counters staring at her concoct her magic of the day. It was the most anxious feeling, impatient patience. Literally I would be so eager to taste her cooking that I usually burned my mouth, from not allowing the food to cool. A terrible tradition that had carried on into my adulthood. I can’t help myself, I love food. But those moments of bliss carried on throughout our whole love affair together. I would rush to go visit my grandmother because I knew there would be some amazing culinary gift that I would receive. But as I got older she would begin to share with me stories of how she grew up and our family history. We would sit at the dinner table as she explained in detail who she was and where she came from. And I would just sit there, “two ears one mouth”. My admiration for her made me respect her on a different level. And hearing the journeys she went through to become the matriarch of our family truly made me appreciate her more. The combination of food and wisdom was so powerful. I obviously loved her cooking, it was one of my vices. But knowing who I am, and where I come from was just as addicting. Those times are forever etched in my mind. I have continued the tradition with my own daughter. I tell her about her family constantly. We discuss specific ancestors. She knows their names. She knows details. I even quiz her from time to time. Just to see if she’s listening. The only difference with the cooking part is that we do it together. My little one loves to get her hands dirty in the kitchen. It makes me always think of my grandmother. She was always eager to please “her mijo”(little boy) and I was just excited to receive her blessings. But when my grandmother got sick that was lost. She had numerous strokes that took her way communication skills.  And even had her bed ridden. The days of my random pop ups were no longer going to happen. We had to care for her the same way she did for all of us as babies. So in the midst of all that our heads were in a fog. And once we had to say our goodbyes and let her ascend it took a while to realize how much we had lost. 

We lost not only the biggest piece to my dad’s side of the family… But we lost our bougie chef. “The lady that raised the Crips”. The sweetest spirit, that could cuss you out if you needed to be straightened out. It was really rough back then. After mourning her for almost three years exactly to the day of her transition is when I could see clearly. I emotionally had removed the chains of pain and loss. And then realized that by me being the so spoiled by her that I didn’t learn her cooking. No one else in my family took the time as well. So with illness and death we loss so much. There were traditions like how she celebrated my sister and I’s birthdays, she would cook us a whole 2 foot tray of chicken mole enchiladas. And for whatever reason my sister and I always tried to get to her house to eat some of the other’s gift. But the tradition went on for years. And since she has been gone neither of us have discussed that. Nor have we tried to make them. One thing I did notice when reminiscing is that there weren’t any cookbooks or recipes. It was done by heart. She knew when it was right. That was her magic. I sit here today and wish that I took the time to even just take a few notes. Since then I’ve learned to be more alert and detailed. I tend to ask my mother tips on her cooking. I know at some point I will have to lose my mother. But I don’t have to lose our history and traditions by her “going home” as the old folk say. 

the biggest lesson learned is take the time to watch, listen and learn. It’ll give you so much more life. Then you can sit around and pass on that wisdom. And continue the spirit of your ancestors. All the time I had with my grandmother was priceless. It gave me a keen perspective on who I am and the world I live in. It taught me what love is and isn’t. It showed me the power of food culturally, historically , socially and and how affectionate it can be. I really don’t have regrets regarding anything with my grandmother. She gave me her all, and accepted it with open arms. But I truly wished I learned some of those dishes so that I could share them with my daughter and family, to continue our traditions. 

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Troy C. Thomas

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