On my first day of seventh grade Spanish class, surrounded by my predominately white classmates, I volunteered the information that my family is “Hispanic.” Looking back, I’m fairly certain I was trying to both shock and impress my teacher, Señora Lewis, as well as my fellow students. With my light skin, most people wouldn’t guess I had a brown grandmother or that I grew up catching snippets of her speaking Spanglish to her sister on the phone when they were gossiping about something she didn’t want me to know about. What I didn’t expect was that Señora Lewis would call me out and ask where my family was from. I remember thinking that it wouldn’t make sense if I gave the right answer, which is that my grandmother is from Colorado.
At that point in my life, I hadn’t begun to unpack the complexities of my identity. It was probably a good nine years before I even heard the word Chicana or Mestiza, and no one in my family used the term Mexican-American to describe who we were. I had only ever heard the blanket term "Hispanic" from anyone I asked. It was the one piece of information I had, so it’s what I repeated with a stutter to my Spanish teacher and, thankfully, we moved on with our first day of lessons.
That was the first time I remember being pressed for details about my family’s history, and to this day, even after years of asking family members questions, reading about Latina identity and the history of the Chicano Movement in this country, the question of "what I am," still makes me nervous. Because I definitely don’t look "white," the question tends to come up every time I meet someone new. Like so many other people in America, my heritage is complicated. Luckily, when I’m at my most confused and my most insecure about who I am — usually on days when I’ve been forced to check a box identifying my race on some form — there is one tangible and delicious link to my identity as a Latina: chile.
Ever since I can remember, on Christmas Eve my immediate family would load into a car and drive 30 minutes across town to my great aunt Stella’s home for dinner. That trademark spicy smell, mixed with the scent of her always impeccably decorated tree, is Christmas to me. My grandmother and her sister always make one pot of red chile, one pot of green chile, and a separate pot of pinto beans. Though the dishes share a similar sounding name, this isn’t the chili that might be served with sour cream and Fritos or on top of a bowl of spaghetti. It finds pleasant company with Dove Creek pinto beans that turn to velvet in my mouth, putting tough kidney beans to shame. It enhances enchiladas, brings out the most beautiful flavors on a burger, or of course, can simply be sipped like a magical elixir that warms your body from the inside out.
My grandmother, Josephina Elvira Quintana, grew up in the San Luis Valley in a town on the border of Colorado and New Mexico called Antonito. Her family had, for centuries, lived in the region when it was Mexico long before it was part of the United States. It had a population of just 1,000 people. She was raised on a 60-acre ranch, where her father raised livestock and grew wheat, barley, oats, potatoes, corn, and alfalfa. The family also had a large vegetable garden where they grew Hatch chiles.
Hatch chiles get their name from the town of Hatch, New Mexico, which is considered the green chile capital of the southwest. The long green chile pods are picked in August and September, and then roasted and peeled and used to prepare different dishes like green chile stew and chiles rellenos. If the pods are left on the vine, they turn red and dry up, and those pods are then ground up and made into red chile powder, which is used in preparing red chile dishes. Where my grandmother grew up, chiles in both forms were always available, and green and red chile dishes, prepared with beef, lamb, or pork, were staples in most households — served with pinto beans, fried potatoes, and homemade tortillas. When she was a young girl, my grandmother’s mother taught her to make chile; two generations later, she taught me. It’s a process that involves many steps, including roasting the chiles in the stove until they’re charred and peeling the skin away from the chiles’ flesh. While making the dish isn’t exactly difficult, there are a few secrets — like how to avoid having your hands get burned by the pepper’s heat — that only come from watching seasoned chile cooks make it.
When my grandmother married my grandfather, a white, retired Navy vet, they moved to Rossville, Georgia. After settling down, my grandmother began severing many of her ties to her heritage. I suspect that she lost some of her connection to her Latinidad for survival and so she would fit into a racial system that simply didn’t understand her or welcome her. She spoke less and less Spanish over time, and she only ever described her family as "Hispanic." But the one thing that my grandmother refused to give up was her food.
When she first moved with my grandfather, she would occasionally make green or red chile for her in-laws. She told me that they fell in love with the food — especially her homemade tortillas. (Back in the 1960s and 70s, store-bought tortillas were not yet available in the supermarkets.) Of course, my grandfather also adored her dishes, especially the green chile, since it was unlike anything he’d ever tasted before meeting her. Each year when she returned home to Colorado, my grandmother carried one empty suitcase with her, which she would fill with fresh chiles, beans, and chile powder to bring back home. During periods when she didn’t have the fresh ingredients on hand, she used canned chiles from the store but would lament their lack of flavor. When you’re used to the good stuff, it’s just not the same. These days, thanks to the internet, the the best of the best is only a click away and we're never lacking for long.
When her younger sister Stella married my grandfather’s brother — yep, these two sisters married a pair of brothers, but that’s another story — and also came to live in the south, the two would cook together sometimes and of course, they always made green chile and tortillas, which my grandmother thinks might be because it reminded them of home. Because their husbands loved it so much, the dish was a natural choice for what to cook when the whole family got together at Christmas. The Instagram-conscious food fanatic in me also likes to think the festive holiday-themed colors of the dish have something to do with it.
In the 12 or so years since I first questioned my identity and felt those initial pangs of not knowing where I fit in, I’ve worked hard to understand my culture and cultivate a personal relationship with my own Latinidad. Still, on the days when the insecurity creeps back in because I’ve received one too many questioning looks after I try to explain that I’m Latina and my ancestors are from Colorado and New Mexico, it’s such a comfort to have one concrete piece of my culture that I can point to, or more accurately, slurp down. Chile is a dish that my family can’t make without thinking about how we learned the recipe. It even tastes better when the ingredients come all the way from the part of the country where being Latinx isn’t so hard to understand. And, of course, at its best, it’s a dish that’s enjoyed that one time of year when I get together with my family, and my grandmother and great aunt sit at the head of the dining room table, as we ask them questions about our home, our family, and our heritage.