My memories with my grandmother are all about the food. I still remember the smell of porky pinto beans simmering in her kitchen, where I spent every Sunday evening as a kid. What seemed like several hundred warm homemade flour tortillas, each a perfect round, were always stacked toward the ceiling. Amid the smell of stewed pork, dried chiles, and cumin, she would greet me with a grab of my cheeks, a hug, and a kiss. This was home, and this was the food of my family. 

I had driven through Mexico for seven months—and nearly 17,000 miles—before I tasted anything like what my grandmother used to cook.

Then I stopped for lunch at the mercado in Santiago, just outside Monterrey, and ordered a red pork guiso (stew). It came with beans and rice and tortillas de harina (flour). When the plate landed in front of me, I had an instant flashback to my grandmother’s table—what sat before me looked exactly like the food she used to make. The pinto beans were mashed with rich, juicy pork fat. The flour tortillas were thick, perfect for soaking up the red stew. I took a bite, teared up, and sat there, barely able to finish eating. I called my dad and cried.

I’d found a connection through food.

Maíz being ground into masa in Janitzio, Michoacán

Ren Fuller

A street view in Capula, Michoacán

Ren Fuller

But the thing was, the people in Monterrey didn’t look like me. They looked a lot like my dad’s side of the family: The Martínez’s are light skinned and have lighter hair than my mother’s side, the Castruitas. I have more of my maternal grandfather’s features—darker hair, darker skin, darker eyes, sharper features in my face, more moreno (brown). I’d found one part of the puzzle in Monterrey, but there were still missing pieces.

That changed a few days later, when I drove into Saltillo, Coahuila, about an hour southwest of Monterrey. I parked and walked the cobblestone streets of the Spanish colonial plazas, eventually sitting on a bench and watching a family play in front of me. There was a little girl, about three years old, in a little white dress and black Mary Jane shoes, dancing between her parents. She turned toward me and my heart sank: She looked exactly like a photo of my mother when she was the same age. I sat there frozen, tears welling in my eyes at the striking resemblance. I then walked through the mercado—and everyone I saw looked familiar. It was like being at a wedding and bumping into relatives I hadn’t seen in years; I didn’t remember their names, but I knew their faces.

It might have been enough to head home with. I had found the flavors of my childhood and I had found people who look like me. Still missing though, was the personal sense of belonging that I expected—that I desperately wanted. I hadn’t found a place that felt like it was mine; I hadn’t found my place in Mexico. 

Just as I was inching closer to finding what I’d come for, the world turned upside down. In March 2020, when the pandemic fully hit the U.S. and Mexico, I was in the middle of the desert in Coahuila. When I realized we’d be entering lockdown, I drove eight hours to the first major city on the open Pacific, Mazatlán. I’d be better to wait it out there. 

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