My grandmother, Pascuala Vasquez Enriquez, lived in Pico Rivera, California, for many years before I was born, but she was a native of Mexico. She was a woman guided by God—mother of eight, and an entrepreneur in an era when women—particularly Hispanic women—were not running their own businesses.
Pequita, as her family knew her, showed her love for her family and her community with food. Every time I visited her, she would sit me down at her kitchen table and start cooking. I’d watch her hold the hot pots and pans on the stove with her bare hands, calloused from years of handling them without pot holders. She always wore a short-sleeved cotton dress with a simple floral print, a well-worn apron, and a light dusting of flour on her arms and face framed by her long silver braids coiled atop her head,. She’d lay out plates of whole cooked pinto beans, fresh homemade tortillas, fideo, and fresh tamales.
Once, over a plate of steaming tamales, I asked Pequita if she was upset that my mother, her daughter, left her faith for that of her husband’s. I was referring to the fact that my Mom, who was Roman Catholic, converted to Judaism when she married my Dad in the 1960s. Pequita replied that the God of Abraham, and the God of Roman Catholic Church were the same God. As long as there was love between my father and mother, she said, God would understand. I thought that was a pretty progressive perspective for a woman of her background and from her era.
Pequita also frequently, and adamantly shared this piece of advice with me:
“Keep all of your own money. Don’t let a man get your money,” she would say to me.
At first, I didn’t know why she was telling me this. Then I learned a little more about my grandmother’s life story:
Pequita was born May 17, 1901. She was raised in San Miguel el Alto, Jalisco, Mexico. She left school after the third grade—cleaning houses to help her widowed mother pay the bills. My great-grandmother also supplemented the family’s income by preparing food that Pequita would help her sell in the local market.
When she was fifteen, Pequita was forced to marry. She and her husband eventually immigrated to Texas where she worked in the kitchen feeding cotton laborers. Afterwards, she and her family traveled to California only to be abandoned by her husband. Pequita’s first husband returned to Mexico, taking three of their five children with him.
After her first husband died, Pequita remarried, and had three more children, one of which was my mother. She was in search of a new purpose—so, using authentic Mexican recipes from her mother, Pequita started her own catering business in the late 1930s—doing all of the cooking and selling, and developing a sharp mathematical mind as she oversaw the business transactions.
Her second husband (my grandfather) was a very controlling man. Because Pequita didn’t drive, he drove her everywhere, and kept a tight hold on all of the money she made. Pequita eventually left him with four of their children, and needed a means to support them. So she revived her catering business in the 1950s—traveling to a wholesale market in downtown Los Angeles to sell burritos, gorditas, enchiladas, chile rellenos, and tamales from a pushcart. She had little competition for her hot food cart—the other food carts sold cold sandwiches.
She continued to run her business through the 1970s, contributing to the family income with her food cart until she was well into her 80s and too tired to continue. Yet even after “retiring,” she made tamales—a labor-intensive task—for special occasions, holidays, or to donate to her church.
I like to think I have the spirit of my grandmother inside me. I’m the only person in my immediate family who is an entrepreneur. Following in her footsteps, I give back to my community as an integral part of my business—donating some of my time for pro bono work each month. I also follow my grandmother’s advice on money and keep my own personal and business bank accounts. The few times I’ve wavered from my grandmother’s advice I’ve paid the price, literally.
To this day, tamales hold a special meaning to me, signaling love, perseverance, and resourcefulness. Each time I eat a tamale, I imagine Pequita smiling down at me with her long silver braids coiled around her head like a crown—her saintly eyes shining with approval.