My Salvadoran Aunts

If someone asked me how many aunts I have, I probably wouldn’t get the number right—there are just so many of them. After consulting with my mom, however, I have confirmed that I have eight aunts in total. Four are my mom’s sisters and four are my dad’s sisters. Two are in Los Angeles, CA, one is in Cottage Grove, Oregon, and five are in Santa Ana, El Salvador. Those five I haven’t seen since the last time I visited my parent’s home country, which was in 2010 when I was 12 years old.

Remembering where we’re from

In LA, I grew up living with my parents, older sister Cindy, Tía Cristina (my mom’s sister), her husband Jorge, and their two kids Jennifer and Jason. First came my older sister, then me, then Jennifer, and last Jason. Despite living with them, I didn’t really grow up with a close relationship with my Tía and cousins. Language barriers and my preoccupations with getting straight A’s, hanging out with friends, and worrying about boys got in the way of that. I’d even say the same about my mom and her connection to my cousins. Still, I never needed emotional closeness to see that these women dedicated their lives to raising us. They dedicated themselves to us and still found the time to care for those they left behind and, maybe what I’m most thankful for, bring pieces of their home country into our worlds.

Food traditions

I could always count on finding a Tupperware of ensalada de coditos (macaroni salad) left by my aunt on our side of the table or a plate of flor de izote forrada en huevo (yucca flowers dipped in egg whites and fried), left on their side of the table by my mom or Horchata (a drink made from morro seeds) and all kind of different frescos (fresh fruit juice) shared with each other on hot summer days. My mom and Tía Cristina always set aside a plate of what they cooked for each other—like a routine offering.

On the mornings of Christmas Eve, I could count on there being rows of plates with pieced chicken, sliced vegetables, and the most delicious tomato-based sauce, spread out on our dining table, all ready to be wedged in the middle of a spoonful of masa (dough made from corn flour), wrapped up in a banana leaf and finally, steamed to perfection. My mom and aunt were seated at the head of the table, my sister and I beside them, trying our best to follow the hands of those sisters. Their perfectly calculated hold and flip of the aluminum and banana leaf- from back to front- followed by the slight tuck and roll that formed those perfect tamales.

Family parties

At family parties I could count on the same routine: they would wake up early in the morning and by afternoon, there were huge pots of food ready to be served to the first guests that might arrive. It might be panes con pollo (short baguette-style bread stuffed with chicken and vegetables) or maybe they’d roped my Tía Juana into coming early and setting up her comal (smooth, flat griddle ) outside, making each pupusa (stuffed corn tortilla) fresh to order for our guests. And maybe my Tía Virginia was visiting, too, somehow evading the cooking, but, with her contagious cackling, helping with the atmosphere.

From left to right, Maria Murga (my mom), Cristina Castillo (my aunt), Cristina Dueñas (my grandma), and Pablo Dueñas (my uncle).

Endless conversations

And at those parties, weaved throughout the house and into the backyard, were conversations that they carried out as they cooked and set up. Conversations about a sister in El Salvador who’d fallen ill, a brother who finally bought a house or a niece who just brought a new member of the family into this world. Conversations in our living room about the beautiful land they have not returned to in years.

My aunt, who is out of the house and at work by 4 am, knew she could always count on my mom to walk tenyear-old Jason to school every morning, right up until the day he began remote learning. She can count on my mom, too, to watch over teenage Jennifer on weekdays while she’s cooking something up in the kitchen. My mom warns her to keep her elbow away from the hot pan, advises her just how to hold the spatula, and flip her breakfast eggs over so that they’re just right. Si así, she’ll say. Yes, just like that.

At the kitchen table

And from what I can remember, it’s the same for my aunts in El Salvador, too. They all live within walking distance of each other, so all of my cousins grew up being watched, scolded, and taught by all of my aunts. There are days where they all come together at my grandma’s house, and they congregate in the kitchen, bringing their daughters in too. Like here, they weave conversations throughout the house and in the kitchen, and all the way into the oven along with the delicious bakes of quesadillas (sweet cheese pound cake) and salpores (sweet bread made from rice). Then everyone gets their fair share to take home and eat with a hot cup of coffee on the side.

Their actions speak louder than words

Thinking about her aunts and the role that all her sisters play in raising countless nieces and nephews, my mom says aunts are important in our family because “they collaborate to take care of you when you’re young and they’re always there to support you.” I couldn’t agree more. Here and there, my aunts love just the same. They don’t say it with words, they say it with actions. They say it with their hands— with those carefully calculated flips and rolls.