treasured secret flavors
My mother, Petra Varela Echerivel was born on December 5, 1927 in Lordsburg, New Mexico. She was the fourth born to Juan de Dios Varela and Rosa Chavez. Petra had three brothers and three sisters. She was born in the United States; however, she was raised and educated in Mexico. My grandfather was a farmer in Janos, Chihuahua, Mexico. Janos is a small town, presidio, on the northern part of the state of Chihuahua. A presidio is a fortified base. The Varela family, Spaniards, can be traced back to the Janos area in the late 1700’s. Chihuahua borders the state of Sonora.
Petra married my father, Augusto Pacheco Echerivel on December 19, 1944 when she had just turned 17 years of age. She soon became an integral member of the Echerivel family (of Basque descent) and learned to embrace the culture and help shape a lifetime of family heritage and traditions. The Echerivel Family heritage was ranching and tending cattle and sheep. Life was very difficult and everything you had was the result of your hard work. There was no running water as all water came from wells. No electricity; kerosene lamps and wood burning stoves are what were used for heating and cooking. You farmed your own land and grew your crops. You depended on each other to be accountable for your actions and provide the support, the nourishment, the encouragement and love for a collective existence.
Petra had to tend to livestock, milk cows, and spend endless days and nights by herself because my father was off working on cattle runs, “corridas.” They grew wheat and corn and ground them to make flour and had their own bee hives to produce honey. They had an abundance of fruits and vegetables and Petra learned to can. Canning was the only way to preserve food for the winter months when fresh produce was nonexistent. Petra learned to make leavened bread and of course, corn and flour tortillas. It was this experience in making something out of nothing and caring for a family on a shoestring that molded and formed Petra into the woman she became.
She was full of energy and didn’t say no to anything. Nothing was impossible and she did it all. She loved the horses and everything that the ranch entailed. Petra and Augusto immigrated to the United States with five children. They were in search of a better life for their family and made the difficult decision to leave everything they knew to head north. Petra never worked outside the home; but we all know that a stay at home wife and mother works harder than any paid position outside the home. The other two children would be born in the United States. She was a strong and a natural born leader and she was also a disciplinarian. She could talk to you with her eyes and you always knew exactly what she wanted or didn’t want. She barely stood 5 feet tall but possessed more stamina and determination and power than anyone I have ever met.
Although she only completed primary education, she was extremely bright and well versed. She read everything and was extremely knowledgeable on worldwide issues and events. She was so talented in design and technical execution that you would have thought she was an engineer. Her favorite color was red and she loved red roses. We always gave her roses because she told us that it was important to do things for others when they are alive, not once they’re gone.
She taught me how to cook and fortunately for me, I was the last one to leave home and thus shared quality time with just the two of us. I felt extremely fortunate that I had her full attention. I remember her teaching me to make several things that at the time, were not my favorites. Some of those acquired taste foods such as her Chile Verde en Aciete, Cazuela, and Tortitas de Camaron are today some of my favorite dishes and are included in the cookbook.
Although all my siblings grew up, married, and had families of their own, every Sunday they came to dinner at Rancho Los Pinos. My mother would cook her fabulous meals for all of us and during that time we would share what was going on in our lives and celebrate each other. Petra was the matriarch of our family. She was not only my mother, but more importantly my mentor, coach, confidant, teacher, spiritual advisor and best friend.
My mother and father were 5 months short of celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary when my mother passed. Fortunately for my father, since I cook very much like her, he continues to know and feel her presence every time he shares a meal with us. I miss her and she lives on in my memories as I cook her recipes and sometimes ask her forgiveness when I alter a measurement or two. Then quickly add…you would love it!
Petra Varela Echerivel