Searching for Heritage, History, and Tradition in Spanish Rice

It’s spicy, vibrant, and so much more than just a pot of rice

By Tyler Watamanuk

Published on April 25, 2018

The closest I feel to my Mexican heritage is when I’m cooking.

I’ve been making Spanish rice for so long that the first time I learned the recipe from my Mexican-American mom has been folded into the muscle memory of cooking this dish. It’s as much of a part of me as my dark eyes and darker hair—also inherited from my mother. When my mom was diagnosed with kidney cancer last year, her traditions and recipes suddenly carried more gravity in my life than ever before. I found myself thinking about her mortality, the life she’s lived, our shared Mexican heritage—and her Spanish rice. The rough-chopped garlic and onions practically scream on the hot stovetop before you add the rice and liquid. Then, the ugly, murky broth transforms into a simmering cloud of ferocious swirling colors as the hot sauce is stirred in. The end result is an in-between hue of orange and red; an empty pot that is now packed to the brim with vibrant flavorful rice.

Spanish rice, simmering on the stove

To this day, the ritual of making this dish makes me feel more Mexican than any other aspect of my existence. I’ve carried this experience with me to every city, apartment, and kitchen of my adult life. I make this rice when I feel lonely and homesick, and I cook it when I have friends over for dinner. My two brothers also make this rice the exact way I do — the very same way our mom taught us. Even now, in my tiny kitchen in Brooklyn, I cook it and I still feel connected to my childhood in Southern California, my Mexican-American mother, and the abuela I never had.

I never met my grandmother and my understanding of her life is limited. I know her name was Cordelia and she was born in Mexico. (Or at least, we think she was — the paperwork is hard to follow.) She married an Irish-American man and that they settled in San Diego, just 20 miles north of the Mexican border. They gave my mother the Spanish name Teresa, which generally means “to reap, to harvest” or “harvester.” I know that she passed away when my mother, the youngest of four, was only one year old.

My mom grew up without her mother, though she looked more and more like her with every passing year: wild and dark hair, tan skin from the California sun, and round eyes like hazelnuts. But despite the resemblance, my mom never really knew the depths of her Mexican heritage because she was raised in a house with her Irish-American father and a white stepmother. So, as an adult, my mother chose to seek out and harvest the flavors and traditions of Mexican cuisine on her own.

She practiced cooking with peppers and onions, learned to make chiles rellenos, and perfected the art of Spanish rice. This rice dish became a constant in our household. We ate it with enchiladas on Christmas Eve and tamales on Christmas Day. It was for special occasions as much as it was for quick weeknight meals. As a family, we found Mexican cooking to be a portal into this part of us that seemed distant, and the more we ate it, the closer that unfamiliar world felt.

Tyler with his mother in a childhood photo

Mexican food, hot sauce, and spice have defined the flavors of my youth and built the palette I cook and eat with today. Both my younger brother and I can inhale the sweet orange fire of a habanero pepper without blinking. Last year, when my mother was in chemotherapy, we measured her recovery and appetite in between treatment cycles through hot sauce. "She put El Pato on her eggs this morning," I'd tell her sister, my Mexican-American aunt, a sign that she was feeling better than the day before when she couldn't stomach any hint of spice. (She's back to putting hot sauce on everything, for now.)

Seeing your own mother battle cancer will shake you to your core. You’ll have no choice but to clench your teeth and hold tightly, with an improbable force, to anything that makes you feel closer to her. Now, I can vividly see the things that will keep me connected to her after she’s gone, and I’ve found new importance in carrying on these parts of my heritage.

The final product: a pot of Tyler's mother's Spanish rice

My love for cooking Mexican food doesn’t mean my culinary agency or Hispanic heritage comes without limits, though. Time and time again, my attempts at tamales have fallen short; the balance of masa and lard, a code I can’t seem to decipher. My chiles rellenos are lackluster, never quite reaching the flavor or aesthetic appeal of my mother’s. And my grasp of the Spanish language is woefully lacking. Growing up in greater Los Angeles, people would sometimes start talking to me in Spanish only for me to clumsily reply “lo siento, no hablo español.”

All of these things make me feel less than Mexican. Yes, my hair is dark, thick, and coarse, and my skin turns a shade of olive in deep summer months, but my own Mexican ethnicity sometimes escapes me. But I’ve also seen that very part of my ethnicity weaponized to make me feel less than equal when I never felt all that Mexican in the first place. Within the last year, I’ve witnessed an agitated white America, fearful of its own dissipating whiteness, lash out any notion of racial or cultural otherness. I’ve also watched an evil cancer, undaunted by my mom’s grace and strength, try to take a mother, grandmother, and wife from her family. Now, more than ever, I realized the importance of preserving your cultural traditions, as their presence in your life is not always guaranteed.

Recipes can be powerful symbols of heritage. They carry the history of a larger culture, yet feel simultaneously personal. The way that my family makes Spanish rice — with El Pato hot sauce, a little extra garlic, sometimes with minced habanero— might not be the most authentic, the most traditional, or the most Mexican, but it’s ours. I am my mother’s Mexican-American son and this is our Spanish rice.

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