Monthly Archives: November 2014

My Mexican Christmas Tree

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Two of my Mexican tin ornaments…

I have always loved Mexican tin ornaments…so shiny and colorful!  I began collecting them many years ago but never really had a way to display them.  Our family Christmas tree has always been decorated only with Hallmark ornaments.  And I’ve been collecting Hallmark ornaments  since they first came out in 1973 – but that’s a story for another post…

I know it was a few years after we moved into our house in Hoover, AL, that I decided to have a Mexican tree in my family room.  It started slowly…we had a small tree we used in our apartment while we were waiting for our house to be built.  It was the perfect size for our family room.  So I put together and began decorating.  I used poinsettia stems and the tin ornaments the first year.  And I added chili pepper lights in green and red too – for a little zing!  I remember the first year only having a few strings of chili pepper lights.  A friend of mine who loves day after Christmas shopping, found a few more sets one year and called me to see if I wanted any.  I said “YES!” and said picked them up for me.   I used those lights until just two years ago when so many had gone out I decided to just use multi-colored lights because I couldn’t find chili pepper lights anywhere in town.

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The purple sugar skull ornament that I found recently at Myers Plants and Pottery in Pelham, AL

Every year, I try to add something new to the tree.  Every time I’ve traveled to New Mexico, Colorado and California, I’ve brought back an ornament.  One year I found a few small sombreros and decided to use them as a tree topper.  Worked out better than I thought it would!  Locally, I’ve found ornaments at World Market and Target.  This year, I went by Myers Plants and Pottery in Pelham, AL,  and found two sugar skull ornaments to add to the tree – one in white and the other purple.   Finding these at Myers was a total shock!  Then again, this is the place where I’ve found amazing Talavera pottery pieces too so…

 

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My daughter Emily places poinsettia flowers around the tree before we began decorating with the ornaments.

This year, my daughter Emily helped me with the Mexican tree.  We worked together so seamlessly and had it done in no time.  After I added the multi-colored lights, she quickly began filling in the spaces with poinsettia flowers.  We worked on the ornaments together and each one filled the perfect spot.  I remember when my kids were little and would clump ornaments into one spot.  After we were done, I would “re-distribute” the ornaments around the tree to even things out.  That wasn’t the case today.  Emily knew exactly what looked good and where to place things.  As a final touch, we picked up the tree skirt and together worked it around the base of the tree.  Then we placed the pewter manger under the tree.  On either side of the manger, we placed a Mexican mariachi nutcracker and a Mexican Santa doll.  Next year, we’ll add red pepper lights back to the tree.  My sweet husband found a few boxes while he was out running errands earlier in the day and brought them home for me!

IMG_8207I’m looking at the Mexican tree now as I write this…so peaceful…so beautiful…so colorful…and so Mexican!

Feliz Navidad!

 

 

 

 

 

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Unpacking the poinsettia flowers, pewter manger and sombrero tree toppers for the Mexican tree.

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First step after adding lights is to add the Poinsettia flowers…

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Wreath tin ornament on the left that I bought in San Antonio, Texas…sugar skull ornament on the right. I found this one at Target a few years ago.

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No Mexican tree would be complete without the Virgen de Guadalupe ornament. In fact…I have several on the tree.

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I have several of these ornaments on the tree. I made several of these last year as thank you gifts to my HICA – Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama – board members. The Monarch butterfly is a symbol of immigration.

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This white sugar skull ornament came from Myers Plants and pottery in Pelham, AL.

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My Mexican Mariachi Santa ornament!

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My pewter manger that sits under my Mexican tree every year…

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Did Somebody Say SALSA?!!

IMG_8074Chances are, if you’ve been to any Zuniga-Odom gatherings over the past fifteen years, you’ve sampled my mother’s famous salsa.  And chances are, you’ve left that gathering wanting the recipe!  It never fails to leave an impression and now when my friends and extended family see my mom at one of my parties, they KNOW there will be salsa!  What can I say…it’s delicious and addicting too!

I went over to my mother’s house the Tuesday before Thanksgiving to watch her make her famous salsa.  She was ready to get started as soon as I walked in the door.  In fact, she had been cooking all day and even sent me home with Puerto Rican chicken and rice a few hours later.  Our Odom family Thanksgiving dinner is on Thursday, and as I said, if mom is there – so is her salsa!

IMG_8035Mom had been to Mi Pueblo Supermarket in Pelham earlier in the day to pick up her salsa ingredients.  The most prominent items were the 20 or so Roma tomatoes she had all washed and cleaned in a silver colander.  She immediately began cutting them up and chopping them into small pieces.

As she chopped, I asked her about the recipe and where it came from.  She reminded me about a time about 15 years ago when we went to dinner at the home of a young woman I had met a work who was of Mexican decent.  Her mother lived with her and she had cooked up a huge spread of wonderful Mexican food for all the guests.  Mom reminded me that she watched the mother make salsa that day and how delicious it was and how she wanted to recreate the recipe for our family.  After the evening with our friends, she came home and talked to my dad about the salsa and ingredients.  She said to me, “After we got married, your dad taught me how to cook, PERIOD!”  (My mind flashed back to our Christmas eve enchiladas…but I’ll leave that for another blog post.)  So, naturally she wanted to run the ingredients by him and get his stamp of approval.  Then, she went on to add her own personal touches and “Barb Zuniga’s Salsa” was born!

IMG_8064After chopping up all the tomatoes, mom chopped up 2 medium-sized sweet Vidalia onions and added them to the tomato mix.  Next, she chopped up about 1-1/2 bunches of cilantro and mixed it in – oh my…that stuff smells soooo good!

She then opened 1 can of Hatch Chopped green chiles mild (4 oz. can) and 1 (3.3 oz.) can of La Costeña Green Chiles – diced, and added them to the bowl stirring everything together.

Next she started adding a pinch of this and a dash of that…and that when I said to her “you’re cooking the old-fashioned way!  I need some more specifics here!”  She slowed down and said, “yes, I guess you could say you need to add about 1/4 teaspoon of salt (as she sprinkled salt over the mixture from the container) and about 1 teaspoon of garlic.  Next she squeezed about 1 tablespoon of lemon juice over the mix.  And finally, about a tablespoon and a 1/2 of sugar “to give it the right flavor!”

IMG_8068As I took pictures of the proceedings, I couldn’t wait to grab a tortilla chip and sample the salsa.  We both did and it tasted perfect to me.  Mom wasn’t convinced and said “needs a little more salt” and proceeded to sprinkle a bit more salt into the bowl.  She said “you gotta have that kick but also a little sweet taste!”  We sampled again…more perfection and deliciousness…

She quickly filled 2-1/2 Ball Mason jars with the salsa.  Once we open these jars on Thanksgiving day, the flavors will have blended together so well that I don’t think we’ll be able to keep the family away from the salsa and chip bowl!

There are many salsa recipes out there but I have to say…my mom’s recipe is my favorite!

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Mom chops up the cilantro for the salsa mix.

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Mom mixes in the cilantro to the chopped Roma tomatoes.

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Mom poses with the finished product…3 jars of her famous salsa!

 

 

 

La Storia…Birmingham’s Italian Community Exhibit

IMG_7794When I first moved to Birmingham in 1980, I was asked by several people if I were Italian.  I would say “no, why?” …and the person asking would say something like, “well, you have such dark eyes and dark hair.”  I had no idea at the time that there was a large Italian community in Birmingham and that this community has been present since the turn of the last century.

IMG_7807About a month ago, I received an invitation to attend a media event at Vulcan Park and Museum for an exhibit called “La Storia – Birmingham’s Italian Community.”  This exhibit tells the story of Italian immigration to Birmingham from the late 1800s to the mid-20th century.  Naturally, I was intrigued and anxious to learn more.  So on Thursday, Nov 13th, we gathered in the Linn-Henley Gallery and heard incredibly touching stories by Dr. Phillip Ratliff, Vulcan Park and Museum Director of Education and Mary Jo Gagliano, Chair of the Exhibit Steering Committee.  The gallery was filled with photos, storyboards and artifacts from the Birmingham Italian community – pulled together by the Italian American Heritage Society.  I couldn’t get enough of this exhibit!!!

IMG_7795We quickly heard where the Italian community settled in Birmingham and how quickly it grew. The population was at about 130 in 1890 and grew to over 2,000 by 1920, settling mainly in Thomas and Ensley (steelworkers), Blocton (coal mining), and East Lake (farming).  As is the case with most immigrant stories, the Italian immigrants were looked down on and took the lowest paying positions.  Because of this, they formed their own close-knit communities building their own churches and schools.  The Vatican sent Father John B. Canepa to Birmingham to help the community build three churches.  In fact, he preached his first sermon at Our Lady of Sorrows church in Italian when he arrived in 1904.  The Catholic faith was an integral part of their lives and continues to be today.

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Short explanation of St. Joseph altars

Another story that really peaked my interest had to do with religion and was the history of the St. Joseph altars.  I have to admit, when I heard “altars,” it had me thinking about the Day of the Dead altars from the Mexican community.  Mary Jo shared a different type of altar story with us and as a Catholic, I was surprised I had never heard of this tradition before.  Each year on March 19th,  the Feast of St. Joseph, Italian families prepare special foods to place on altars in their own homes. This tradition came from Sicily when after a serious drought, the Sicilian people prayed to their patron Saint Joseph for rain.  When the rains came, they pledged to distribute food to the less fortunate.  The tradition continues today and many believe that having a St. Joseph’s altar can bring good fortune!

I wondered why Vulcan Park and Museum would be hosting this exhibit and found out quickly that the statue (Vulcan) was designed by Italian immigrant Giuseppe Moretti.  In addition, the stone tower where Vulcan currently stands was crafted by Italian stonemasons when the statue was moved to Red Mountain 75 years ago.  The impact of the Italian immigrant community is felt all around us in our city beginning with the of the most visible icons – Vulcan.

As I listened to these stories, I couldn’t help but draw comparisons to the state of the current Hispanic immigrant community in Alabama. The struggles and yearning to draw acceptance is a common thread to these communities.  It’s common with any newcomer.  I had a chance to speak one on one with Mary Jo after the tour and she shared a few more personal stories that re-emphasized this point.  We both agreed how important it is to tell our stories and keep them alive.  We have so much to learn from one another…

This exhibit will run through September 2015 and there is a small admission fee for non-Vulcan Park members.  Along with the exhibit, there are a number of events that will be featured through next June.  I’m particularly interested in the March 12th Cooking Southern Italian – An Evening in a Sicilian Kitchen, where Mary Jo Tortorigi Gagliano of La Tavolo Sicilian cooking school and Chef Vizzina of The Vizzina Group will demonstrate techniques of Sicilian cooking.  If it’s about food, it’s going to be good!  Admission is $10 for this event.  May 31st will feature a Sunday Afternoon Tour of Italian Catholic Churches along with two cemeteries dedicated o Italian immigrants.  This event is $30 and will be presented by Dr. E. E. Campbell and world-renowned sculptor, Signoro Carlo Roppa.  There are several other events that can be viewed on the Vulcan Park and Museum website.  I hope I can get to all of them!

Meanwhile…here are a few shots from the exhibit…

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Dr. Phillip Ratliff, Director of Education at Vulcan Park and Museum leads the tour of the La Storia exhibit.

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Mary Jo Gagliano, Chair of the La Storia Exhibit Steering Committee added personal stories during the tour.

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Dr. Phillip Ratliff explains the importance of Father John B. Canepa to the Birmingham Italian community.

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Sculpture of Father John B. Canepa

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The significance of religion – the Roman Catholic faith – was a feature of the tour.

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Quotes of prominent Birmingham Italian Americans are featured throughout the exhibit.

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Italian neighborhoods in Birmingham are explained in this section of the exhibit.

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Documents of new immigrants are a part of the exhibit.

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A name that is well known around Birmingham is Brunos…this part of the exhibit showcases the different professions Italian Americans have had over the years.

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Outside the exhibit is a recognition piece dedicated to the Italian American members of the community who contributed to this exhibit. Tina Verciglio Savas (pictured here) remarked that it was like reading her high school yearbook – she recognized so many names.

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Photographing a photo of Giuseppe Moretti, the Italian immigrant sculptor who created Vulcan, the largest cast iron statue in the world that stands prominently over Birmingham from Vulcan Park and Museum.

 

 

 

A Trip to At Home…

A new store called At Home opened near my house recently.  I had no idea what this store was about but curiosity was piqued after my daughter went by and loved it and then my mother said she went by and bought a few things.

So today, after spending several hours with my daughter and our wedding planners (my daughter is getting married in April next year – more on that in a later post), we decided to check it out together.  There are still a number of empty spaces in the store  – some shelves are empty and waiting to be filled – but their Christmas items are out in full force and everything is color coordinated and presented by theme.

Since we were in wedding mode, we found a number of items in burlap in the Christmas section that will work nicely for my daughter’s wedding.  We made a note of those items and continued our exploration.  Then suddenly…I spotted an entire shelf unit of Mexican pottery!  YES!!!  Score!!!  So beautiful!!!!  And now I must have them…

IMG_7591These pottery items are rather large but I can see them gracing my deck next spring with lovely plants.  I can also see them on my front doorstep on either side of my front door.  So many possibilities…  Of course, this store now has my full attention since they carry Mexican pottery.  I’m just hoping they will continue to get a nice selection and a variety as the seasons change.  Time will tell, and I’ll be checking on them!

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IMG_7595Of course, when I’m with my daughter (or any of my kids), we have a great time cutting up and today was no exception.  Down one aisle, we spotted some New York storage boxes that looked like suitcases.  This immediately bought the musical “Singing in the Rain” to our minds and the song “Broadway Melody” where Gene Kelly struts across a stage swinging his suitcases and singing “gotta dance!”   My daughter decided to recreate the scene and of course, I got a photo of it!  Oh…and I think I forgot to mention that it’s not unusual for me and my girls  to break into song at the drop of a hat.  It gets especially crazy when I’m with my sisters!  I love that this has carried over to my kids!

On our way out of the store, we passed the colorful Christmas trees again.  I remember our family having an aluminum Christmas tree when I was growing up in Puerto Rico.  My mother would put it on the marble coffee table and then place a four color wheel light next to it.  Well, now you can apparently get these trees in multiple colors!  My daughter found one in purple, her favorite color, and of course now she wants one.  The trick will be to convince her future husband that this is the tree for them!  This should be interesting…

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Did I mention it was a fun day??!!!

 

Thrifting Treasures

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No matter where I go, I look for thrift stores and these little treasures were waiting for me at a thrift store in Denver, Colorado this past June!

You know the saying…one man’s (or woman’s) trash is another’s treasure…well, it’s just amazing what you can find when you go on the thrift store hunt!

My sister Kanista, who lives in North Carolina, really got me hooked on thrift store shopping.  Her normal Saturday routine is to hit her local thrift stores and she definitely has an eye for vintage and unique!  When I visited her last year, she took me to her favorite places and we had a blast loading up on great clothing pieces and a few household items.  Her home is filled with beautiful finds.  Now, since I’ve started my own Saturday morning hunts, we text each other with photos of our latest finds!

In Birmingham, there are a few thrift stores that I frequent.  The two Salvation Army stores – one on Green Springs and one on Highway 150 in Hoover – are two of my favorites.  I especially love hitting them on Wednesdays when everything is 25% off.  On other days, they have a color system and clothing is 50% off.  Either way, you get a great bargain!  Another favorite is Lovelady Thrift store and I never fail to walk out of this store with something special.  I’ve been lucky enough to find a few Groupons too for $40 worth of merchandise for $20!

What I’ve been most surprised about lately is how much Mexican pottery I’ve been finding at these stores.  From a previous post, you know about my love of Talavera pottery – well, I’ve been adding to my collection with several smaller items.  I also keep an eye out for Fiesta dishes and my latest find was a large yellow platter from around the 1960s.  Couldn’t believe my eyes when I stumbled upon it at Lovelady a few months ago!

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IMG_7548Another place I love is a little place in Pelham called Treasures.  I bought a mink coat there last year – but that’s another story for another post…  Meanwhile, I found a really interesting Talavera piece there recently.  I wasn’t quite sure what it was until I got home and took a good look at it.  Turns out…it’s a soap dish!  I placed in my powder room which has quite a few Talavera pieces adorning it.

Some other items I’ve found are Mexican serape blankets that I’ve used quite often at Fiesta events.  I found one huge and colorful one at Alabama’s Thrift in Center Point last year.  It’s been quite useful for Fiesta promotion events to cover a table and set the scene for TV promos and other media events.

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This is the first time I’ve found a Mexican blanket like this one. Usually they are just striped and very colorful.

These plates were found at Alabama’s Thrift in Alabaster.  I couldn’t believe my luck when I found not one plate, but three!  Very beautiful and the perfect addition to my family room coffee table.  A quick note about the Alabama Thrift Stores…they also have a color discount system and so it makes “the hunt’ all the more fun.

Meanwhile…tomorrow is Saturday and I’m itching to get out and see what I can find…so stay tuned!!!

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Día de los Muertos…Birmingham style!

IMG_7508Sunday was Día de los Muertos – Day of the Dead – and Birmingham celebrated in a big way!  Barehandsinc.org has been preparing for this 12th celebration all year-long and I do believe this was probably their best year ever!

Eddie and I arrived a little before 4 p.m. (when the gates opened) and normally we pay our $10 and get right in.  Not this year…we waited almost 20 minutes to get in this year!  Not a bad thing for the event, mind you!

Once we got in, the courtyard – which is generally rather empty – was already quite crowded.  I started at one end of the big brick wall and began making my way down the wall taking pictures and just taking it all in.  There were many more public altars this year.  And there was a huge tribute to Mexican Artists.  It would have taken me all night to read all those names…it was simply beautiful.

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I remarked to Eddie how there were hardly any people there that we knew.  Again, not a bad thing…it was great seeing lots of new faces.  it’s a wonderful thing for a festival!  We eventually ran into quite a few friends.  Eddie captured it with a photo of the group – then a man walked right in front of us, oblivious to us all standing there posing for the camera – and Eddie captured the aftermath…all of us laughing hysterically!  Love that photo and all those friends!

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Got to see my sweet friend, Cristina Almanza at DOD this year!

I didn’t get to see festival founders Wendy Jarvis nor Tracy Martin this year…but I know they were beaming at the turnout and at the success of this year’s event.  So many people remembered and celebrated.  And that’s what the event is all about.

I’ve seen so many photos of the event on Facebook this past week.  Here are a few of mine to add to the mix…

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My friend Miguel with his sweet daughter Gabriella…she was mesmerized by the mariachi playing at the altars.

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My Altars…

Day of the Dead is over…but I’m not sure when I’ll take down my home altars.

IMG_7447I started putting my altar together on my dining room buffet but realized quickly that I would run out of room.  So I expanded to my dining room table and finally to my living room coffee table…creating three separate but cohesive spaces.  My Zúñiga family was heavily featured on the buffet…my dad along with his pilot record books, his rosary and a handkerchief he once gave me to use when I was 9 years old and had the sniffles going to Catholic school one morning – along with a photo of him in his beloved T-Bird car that he had while in Cambodia.  The photo of dad with his siblings and parents is so special – they are all gone now, along with their spouses.  My mother is the only living spouse…

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Dad in his T-Bird…

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Dad (center) with his brothers Felix and Lorenzo – front row – his sister Gloria, and parents Apolonio (Tata Polo) and Norberta (Nana Beta).

 

IMG_7443On the other side of the buffet – my in-laws, the Odoms – Johnnie and Glen.  I placed a copy of one of Johnnie’s cookie recipes next to her photo.  I found the recipe on her refrigerator – in her own handwriting – after she passed in 2011.   Next to my in-laws, my sweet sister-in-law, Rhonda, who passed unexpectedly this summer.  One of my favorite photos of her too – arms outstretched and welcoming everyone to Thanksgiving dinner at her house on Smith Lake.  An added feature – a Christmas sweater – because Rhonda loved to wear her seasonal sweaters!

 

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IMG_7441On the dining room table, pictures of the Odom and Zúñiga families scattered about…beautiful photos of mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, sisters and bothers, sons and daughters…

And finally, the coffee table with photos of the Stone family – my mother’s parents  – my grandparents, my sweet Aunt Gail, my uncle and my great-uncle, great-aunt and cousin.  I remember the times when we would come to Alabama during the summer for vacations and they were all here.  I miss them all dearly.

Artificial marigolds were scattered on all three altars…next year I want to use real ones.  Those were the finishing touches I used on Saturday night.  This was after going to see the animated movie , Book of Life, with my girls.  I cried at the movie ending and yes, I cried as I placed the candles and marigolds around each altar.  As cold as it was outside Sunday night, the house felt warm with the memories of our ancestors and the lives they led.  Viva la Vida!

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