Cleaning My Kitchen Helps Me Feel Connected to My Mexican Heritage
When I was growing up in a Mexican American home, deep cleaning was a weekly occurrence (or daily, if we’re talking about the kitchen). To this day, it’s a ritual completely intertwined with my heritage and a way to connect with my culture.
Each Saturday morning, my mamí would start the day playing salsa and cumbia classics on our kitchen radio. My younger sister and I knew this was our alarm clock to get up and start cleaning. The message was clear, but just in case there was any doubt, she’d follow up the music with half-a-dozen loud claps, proclaiming “A limpiar!” My mom is under five feet tall, but her passion and strength has always made her feel larger than life. As the second youngest of 12 siblings, my mom was raised to constantly keep her home clean, paying considerable attention to la cocina — where culture and family traditions come together. And she continued this with her own family.
Now that I’m an adult, the act of cleaning the kitchen is incredibly meaningful for me. Yes, it’s a necessary chore. But it also helps me feel connected to my family and my culture, despite living far from them — myself in San Diego, my parents and siblings in Los Angeles, and the rest in central Mexico.
Although my busy schedule only allows for a deep cleaning session once a month, I’ve taken on my mom’s Saturday morning routine (including my own playlist of salsa oldies and some added reggaeton hits), and I’ve found that cleaning the kitchen brings me a great sense of nostalgia. The scents, sounds, and textures of the tools and products I use to clean are visceral, and they aren’t just there to keep my kitchen sparkling, but to remind me of my Mexican roots and uphold my family’s traditions. A few cleaning and smart organizing tricks in particular are instant cultural connections for me: a Tallón scrubby sponge, Fabuloso and a trapeador, and the oven. Allow me to explain.
No kitchen is completely clean without a good, thorough scrub. Most sponges can get the job done, but in a Mexican home, we turn to a Tallón scrubbing sponge, which has soft, fuzzy bristles. These multipurpose sponges are essential for wiping down counters and washing the dishes. (Imagine, I didn’t even know how a dishwasher operated until I entered my 20s! Because we always washed dishes by hand.) The unique texture is rough enough to scrape food and grease off, but gentle enough to never scratch any of my mom’s pristine pans. “Tallalo bien,” my mom would advise us as kids, knowing we weren’t scrubbing things as properly as she’d like. Now, every Tallón sponge reminds me of the hands of the women in my family — gentle, yet endlessly hardworking.
Then there’s Fabuloso, my family’s go-to cleaner for mopping the floor. The lavender scent brings happy memories of cleaning the house with my mom and sister or watching my aunt tidy up her garage in Mexico. The typical mop, as most people know it, wasn’t something I knew about when I was growing up. My mother would use a rastrillo, which is a squeegee mop, and a trapo (or rag) made of a woven, recycled fabric called jerga — these would be paired together to form a trapeador (a mop). Our trapeador was always incredibly effective, but I will say it was a pain to wash and dry the trapo by hand. In my own home, I have used spray mops for convenience, but there is no better cleaning tool for a kitchen than a Mexican trapeador.
As for the oven, most Mexican homes treat the oven as the kitchen’s ultimate storage solution. When I was growing up, our oven was filled with placemats, plastic bags, pots and pans, napkins, and, yes, even Tupperware. Keeping the oven organized was essential in keeping the kitchen clean and tidy to prevent clutter and have easily accessible storage. I started storing placemats in my own oven, but decided it wouldn’t work after my half-Mexican husband preheated the oven and accidentally burned them to a crisp (guess his other half never used the oven as storage!). Ever since that run-in, my oven remains empty — my placemats, Tupperware, and plastic bags now live in cabinets. But every time I open my oven to clean it, I visualize my mom’s oven — each rack neatly organized with those kitchen essentials, and I’m reminded of her and my family’s keen eye for tidiness.
I have always felt a strange connection to cleaning, in both positive and negative ways. As a woman, I’ve hated the “Latina maid” stereotype. This stereotype has caused tourists at hotels to ask if I’m part of the cleaning crew, despite not wearing anything that even comes close to resembling a uniform. At the same time, I acknowledge that Latinas are the heart of their homes and the stereotype has also empowered me to connect with my culture and family and keep my home as clean as I can. I take comfort in knowing that a Latina maid is someone like my mom, aunt, or grandmother — a woman dedicated to her home and to her family.
Of course, like nearly every person in the world, cleaning is also a chore for me. In my case, though, I love what cleaning my home represents. When I can’t bring myself to do the work, I try to remember my mother’s ultimate cleaning motto: “Como tienes tu espacio, así tienes las mente.” Your space reflects your state of mind.
Growing up with such a rigorous and memorable cleaning regimen has made me extremely organized in all aspects of my life and has allowed me to appreciate the effort that goes into maintaining a home. My husband has often said that my method of cleaning makes it feel as if our space is not really lived in (is there even such a thing as “too clean?”). To me, that compliment just means I’m succeeding in preserving my family’s cleaning tradition.
La cocina in a Mexican home is the most special place in the world to me. A kitchen brings family together, whether it’s through a home-cooked meal or a Saturday cleaning session between a mother and her two daughters. Using these sentimental cleaning supplies and thinking about how I organize my kitchen only creates a stronger bond to my heritage and family — each one reminding me of what home really means.