Horchata. It is one of those little things in life that make me want to say, “Thank you Lord.” Whoever the person was who decided one day in a small village in Mexico to combine one cup of rinsed long grain rice, two quarts of water, one cinnamon stick, broken into pieces, and then let it sit for three hours before boiling it, blending it, sieving it, and then to come up with the brilliant idea of flavoring it with one teaspoon vanilla, and half a cup of white sugar and pouring it over ice—-this person shares a sliver of my own heart.
I do not go to Mexican cafes and order anything without pairing it with a Horchata. And every time I take that first sip of this divine beverage, I get a flash of memory of the very first time I took that first sip–and I smile.
I was shy, gangly six-year-old, living in Ocean Beach, California with my little brother Anthony and sister Barbie, our Mexican nanny named Xochil along with her two nieces Sandy and Nena, and my mom. One summer night, Xochil took us kids out for an evening walk. I remember the black sky and stars above, looking down at us as we walked along the city sidewalks warmed by street lights and the neon lights hanging in the liquor store windows, souvenir shops, and the little hole-the-wall-Mexican restaurant where Xochil said we could stop. I remember trying to look over the counter to see the men whose voices I heard as they cooked carne asada and quesadillas behind the glass wall, but it was too high–I only saw wood walls, stickers, and glass. The room was bright and Mariachi music danced through the speakers of an old, dusty boombox near the cash register.
Xochil talked in fast, friendly Spanish with the cashier then looked down at me and said, “¿quieres un horchata? ”
“What’s a horchata?” I asked.
Sandy and Nena stopped playing with my brother Anthony’s light brown hair and just looked at me. Barbie continued to open and close the mouths of the bubble-gum dispensers by the opened, glass door.
“¿Nunca tenía horchata? Aye mija, necesitas que probar uno,” Xochil replied excitedly.
“Ok,” I responded, curious as to what it could be.
And then Sandy, her neice picked up a styrophome cup with a plastic lid and straw from the counter top and handed it to me with big eyes and a waiting countenance. I looked through the lid and saw a milky white drink and ice.
I took a drink—-the most perfectly sweet, creamy, cool drink I ever had. I don’t remember much after that. Just horchata and laughter as we walked back home. I have no memory as to whether my brother and sister had a drink–my brother was only one at the time, so I’m sure Sandy or Nena held him. My sister probably had her own or shared the horchata with me. Maybe we all shared as we were quite poor at the time. But there was no fighting. Only laugher and baby corn teeth, conversation filled with Spanish and English words, and Xochil, normally so serious, contentedly sipping hot sauce out of a ramekin like it was juice and listening to us children as she looked up at the moon and the lights ahead.
“Why are you drinking hot sauce Xochil?” I asked.
“Para kill de snakes en mi stomach,” she said with a wink.
Night. Lights. Warmth. Horchata. Laughing. White smiles and brown skin.