It’s 1959. Americans rush to the movie theater to watch Marilyn Monroe. Elvis Presley sings on the radio. Hawaii is about to be admitted to the United States; Fidel Castro will take power in Cuba. Life goes on in Mexico with Adolfo Lopez Mateos as the new president, and in Nogales, Sonora, there is a little restaurant called The Sonora Sinaloa.
A cowboy sits at his usual corner table, where he sits every time he’s on business at the border. The waitress asks for his order; he asks for a recommendation.
“Que tal unos chiles en nogada?” The señorita comes back to his table and places the white and indigo talavera plate holding a dark chile poblano smothered in a creamy sauce. It looks like a snow-capped little mountain, decorated with chopped parsley and tiny red seeds that remind the cowboy of Christmas. Velvety to the touch, it is sweet, sour, and spicy. There must be nutmeg, cinnamon, pepper. The cowboy senses all that richness, a complication of flavors. He signals for the waitress to come to his table.
“Is there a problem sir?”
“Who’s dun’ it?” He points to the clean plate.
Josefa is in the kitchen. She’s been up since the sky turned gray, even before the roosters announce to the sun that it is time to rise. She’s toasted the coffee beans, seasoned the pork to be milled for fresh chorizo, roasted the chiles, and gone to the mercado to order the produce.
Josefa walks out of the kitchen, approaches the cowboy’s table. “¿Todo bien, señor?” Everything all right? She wipes her hands on her apron.
“Boyd’s the name. You can call me Boyd.”
“El boy? El boy como cauboi?”
“No se dice boy! Se dice, Boyd! B.O.Y.D. I have a ranch north of Tucson. I tend the cattle and my land. I have acres and acres of Sonoran Desert, a stream runnin’ by, lotta work to do, lotta cowboys to feed, and my wife could use all the help she can get. I’ve been coming here a while and I need to hire a good cook like yerself.”
“Un rancho?” asks Josefa.
For a moment, Josefa remembers her family’s ranch down in Navolato, Sinaloa—the ranch that was taken away by the government, a consequence of the land reforms of the Mexican Revolution. It was her father’s land and she knew how to work it. She used to run through those cornfields; used to long for the mango trees to be in season, to eat their fruit with sticky hands and a drippy chin.
Josefa does not speak English but she’s quick and understands that the offer is about working at a ranch for the family. She says, “No tengo papeles, Boy. ¡Solo tengo mi pasaporte!”
“No problemo! I’ll get yer papers for ’ya!”
“No se dice ‘no problemo’, se dice ‘no hay problema,’” she jokes back.
Josefa will leave her young daughter in care of a relative. She asks herself if she’s risking too much. What if this vaquero has other intentions? Will her daughter resent this? Will she belong in this new place?
A few weeks later, in 1959, Mr. Boyd and Josefa are at the Nogales Port of Entry. There’s a portrait of President Eisenhower on the wall. Josefa is holding a small suitcase. She hands over her Mexican passport.
“American citizen,” says the cowboy. The officer jots something on a ledger and says, “Welcome back.” Boyd the cowboy tips his hat.
“Gracias,” says Josefa, and she enters the country as if entering her neighbor’s house.
At Boyd’s ranch, Josefa faces a long table that stretches under a covered pavilion. The table is full of hungry cowboys. She places plates heaped high with pancakes at strategic points and gestures the cowboys to begin their breakfast.
“Listen, ‘ere, Josefa, I don’t mean to superintend ya, don’t make us no pancakes no more, cook up some good ol’ Mexican food. That’s why I hired ya for.”
“Esta bien, patrón!”
For the next days, the next months, the next years, the cowboys eat huevos rancheros, divorciados, chilaquiles, chorizo, frijoles, café de olla, tortillas, chicharrones, and nopalitos. Oh! How many nopalitos! And that’s just for breakfast. For dinner, the fine meals are served under the purple sky and white stars. There are calabacitas, gorditas, chalupas, albondigas, enchiladas, enfrijoladas, entomatadas, frijoles charros, huaraches, burritos, tostadas, menudo, mole, pozole, rajas con crema, sopes, tacos, birria, caldo de queso, cazuela, cocido, asado. Desserts are delicately prepared. Atole champurrado, arroz con leche, tapiocas, merengues, torrejas, camote enmielado, empanadas, sweet gorditas, dulce de leche. Christmas is ready with batches and batches of tamales, and Lent wouldn’t be Lent without a pot of capirotada.
It takes many hours to prep the meals, only to watch the vaqueros gobble it all up in less than 10 minutes. Josefa is grateful to get up every day to do what she loves, to see the Boyd family and watch the cowboys eat with gusto. And they thank her for every meal. She tells them she cooks with love—that’s why the food tastes so good.
But there is no rest for Josefa. Her back pain intensifies at night. Her feet are sore. She longs to be with her family. She asks herself if she is still doing the right thing. Is this pain in her heart and in her body worth it? How many more months must they wait for the papers to arrive? It’s the only way she can have her daughter with her.
She also misses the little things—the radio novelas and the music of Pedro Vargas and Pedro Infante. Instead, she listens to a country station that Mrs. Boyd plays on the Admiral.
It is 1964. American servicemen are dying in Vietnam. Despite the Civil Rights Act, the violence continues. The Beatles take the world by storm, and Josefa and her daughter are at the Immigration Office accepting their new status as legal residents.
Boy el Cowboy delivered on his promise. Josefa goes back to cooking gallina pinta for the cowboys with her daughter close by.
Josefa continued to work at Mr. Boyd’s ranch until her body couldn’t do it anymore. She moved to Tucson and made the best tamales and butter gorditas in the Old Pueblo. Josefa watched her family grow one Sunday supper at a time. She became a citizen of the United States. She participated in her community and watched her family sprout: two of her grandchildren went off to the service, and she prayed for two of her great-grandchildren who served in Iraq.
One day, I sat with Josefa, my grandmother, out on the porch. We watched the garden in the gentle breeze of the spring morning. A hummingbird flitted from flower to flower. The vague murmur of the kitchen radio could be heard. She’d tuned to a classic country station and I was puzzled by her choice in music. She was humming to Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces.”
“Abuelita, how do you know this song?”
“La tocaban en el rancho del Boy.” They used to play it at Boy’s ranch. ✜
Gwendoline Hernandez, a Tucson native, is an information technology engineer who now dedicates her time to her family, writing, and producing MiTucsonRadio.com. Her favorite Mexican dishes are Pozole al Estilo Sinaloa and Marlin en Escabeche.