May 2014

Memory Doors


Patricia Trujillo


Each morning, I have the privilege of opening the door in my kitchen to look out onto the juniper-covered hills and mesitas that my mother, grandmother, great-grandmother and great-great grandmother looked upon in El Guache, New Mexico. I take my cup of coffee to the door and begin every day by monitoring the slight changes. Recently, I’ve seen an apricot tree take bright pink bloom, and then unfortunately, frost, and scatter the not-to-be fruit like burnt popcorn on the ground. In the last couple of weeks, leaves began their green push into life. Birds come and go from this place, and their songs are the soundtrack to the land from which I spring.


During the last three years, I’ve been renovating my Grandma Lola’s house. My family and friends, whom I gratefully acknowledge, have helped me design, demo and re-create the entire home. It has been a grueling process that is ongoing, like after the death of my father in the first year of the project, when I wanted to just throw my hands up in defeat and grief. The process of restoring home and familia always brought me back. What I realized is that part of this process of restoration has been the mental cataloguing of my memories, a literal “re-story-ing” of the house. And many memories emerge from the kitchen and this door because, as Muskogee poet Joy Harjo reflects, “The world starts at the kitchen table.”


The act of opening this door each morning has become a ritual for me since I moved into my home last year around this time. Daily, I let in my ancestors and the flood of memories they bring with them: my Gramita Marina serving me, my siblings and my primos thick slices of cheddar cheese with Karo syrup as a secret late-night snack; my Grandma Lola frying up her million-dollar hamburgers and hand-cut potatoes; my Tío Frank taking out the bucket of food slop for the pigs to eat. My entire family gathered around the kitchen table, at times laughing with joy of hearing the stories de antes, or other times, during serious decision-making. This is a space of Spanish and English. There were years’ worth of birthday cakes—messy and home baked—served here. There were immense moments of loss contemplated in this kitchen. There were children, including my own mother, born here. There were holiday celebrations with hands plunged deep in masa for bread and pots of beans and posole brewing a comforting aroma into the air, and there were ordinary days with buckets of fried chicken and instant mashed potatoes. I can open the door and still see my dad at his saw, cutting wood for a banco or making trimming for my closet door.


After about 10 years of living elsewhere—Nebraska, Texas and Colorado—this kitchen always remained the anchor to my sense of place, my querencia, the place where I feel most like myself. I left to pursue graduate school and a career in the professoriate, and, in those travels, my scholarship and work would always bring me back to New Mexico and our stories. As a student, and now as a research scholar, stories and storytelling in northern New Mexico remain at the core of my writing and research pursuits. But, more significantly, what my own work has impressed upon me is the need for Nuevomexicanas and Nuevomexicanos to share their own stories. We can do this in so many ways: orally or in the written form, online or in a book, in a public forum or just with our children and friends. Telling our stories matters.


As an educator who teaches about northern New Mexico history and culture, I try to emphasize to my students the importance of sharing our family stories. We all live in a moment where we are supersaturated with information, and we receive stories from multiple media outlets: television, movies, Facebook, websites, Instagram, Twitter, and so on. I’m a fan of all of the aforementioned, but I often reflect on the fact that one of the privileges I was raised with was family stories, which, for me, has translated into rootedness. Narratives—the persistent stories we use to chronicle our senses of family, culture and history—are the earliest ways that we shape how our young people will live life and make healthy choices. If we depend on only external outlets for our stories, we know that they can often be framed incorrectly or in the negative. There is a tangible pain that comes from loss of story. As Rudolfo Anaya writes, “Art and literature reflect the cultural group, and not just the surface reality, but that substratum of thought which is group memory.” Caring for our stories is caring for our collective memory as Nuevomexicanos.


I started this essay the way I start each day, looking out my Grandma’s kitchen door. Because of stories shared with me and from my own experience, I can look out the kitchen door and imagine my gramita and tía hoeing in the kitchen garden, hanging laundry, and laughing through their daily chores. Or I can look out the door and see my dad, a little grumpy with me, cutting another board because I didn’t measure twice, so he’d only have to cut once. What I gain from those stories is the knowingness that I come from hard-working, humble, and amazingly intelligent people who worked collectively to get the day-to-day of life done. I understand my connection to the land and my sense of belonging. I know of resilience and persistence. Hopefully, we all have at least one such door in our own lives, and, if not, we find one. I invite you to open it for yourself and let the stories in, like our familia, for whom the door is always open and for whom we always exclaim, “¡Entre, entre!”



Patricia Trujillo, Ph.D., is assistant professor of English and Chicana/o Studies and director of equity and diversity at Northern New Mexico College in Española.





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