10 Cleaning Tips I Learned from My Mexican Mother

published Apr 21, 2022
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Grandmother slicing bread in kitchen during family dinner party
Credit: Getty Images/Thomas Barwick

Like most women, my mamí learned everything she knows about cleaning from her mother, aunts, and sisters. She always seems to know just how to clean something — quickly, efficiently, perfectly. My mamí worked full-time when I was growing up, but our casa was always bien limpiecita, or extremely well-cleaned. It didn’t look lived in; it looked pristine. Of course, my sister and I were required to help, and so we learned to clean the same way mamí learned.

My mamí, Laura, in her kitchen.

I have taken her cleaning tips and tricks with me into adulthood, applying them to my own housekeeping routine and getting my husband into these habits as well. If I’m ever not sure of something, to this day, I’ll just call her to ask what type of cleaning solution will work best on what appliance, or where I should buy a certain cleaning product. She always has an answer ready to go. I’m sure I’ll continue to learn even more from her. While that happens, these are the best tips she’s passed down to me so far.

Credit: Sarah Crowley

1. Clean glass with newspaper.

It’s definitely more of a challenge to track down a newspaper these days, but when I’m able to get my hands on one, I use it to clean the glass in my home. I remember my mamí and aunts in Mexico wiping glass surfaces and mirrors with newspapers and being totally confused … until I tried this tip for myself. 

To do it: You just lightly spray a sheet of newspaper with equal parts water and rubbing alcohol or cleaning vinegar and then wipe down a glass surface. The first time I tried this I was shocked at just how sparkling and smudge-free my windows became. If you want to try this at home just try a spot test, first.

2. Use hot, hot water.

Hot water kills bacteria, so when it came to mopping my mamí only used hot water to dilute our favorite lavender-scented multi-purpose cleaner, Fabuloso. Diluting the stuff not only made the concentrated product last longer, but it also seemed to make the aroma stronger and helped loosen all the grime and dirt from the floor. To adjust this tip to use on my concrete floors, I pour a splash of Fabuloso directly onto the floor and go over it with a steam mop. It’s important to remember, however, that hot water or hot steam can cause damage over time to certain flooring such as hardwood.

3. Use Zote soap to wash cloths and rags.

After finishing our Saturday morning cleaning routine, we’d still have to wash up the cloths and rags we used for the floors, counters, and other surfaces. I hated this task as a kid, but as an adult, I feel immense satisfaction from finishing the job. The only cleaner that’s up for the task? Zote soap. This hot pink, citronella-scented laundry soap bar may not seem powerful, but it’s one of those products that every Mexican mother and grandmother keeps stocked for daily use. 

Zote is known for being tough on stains, which is why we’d use it to turn our black-and-grey rags back to white again. Zote’s effectiveness and versatility has been helpful to me when washing stains off my dish towels, hand-washing certain laundry items, and even cleaning my makeup brushes. 

Credit: Phichai/Shutterstock

4. Clean drains with baking soda and lime. 

Mexicans love limes — and by love, I mean we squeeze them on everything. I believe the scent and taste of a lime perfectly encapsulates Mexican culture, so it makes sense that we’d use it for cleaning, too. While there is a plethora of lime-based home remedies and hacks I use, cleaning with lime has been an incredibly effective tip I learned from my mamí.

To clean a sink drain, sprinkle baking soda and rub it with a halved lime, making sure the juice mixes with the baking soda to create a paste. This useful tip gets rid of grime and dirt around the drain, and it gives my kitchen that great limón aroma.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

5. Cook potatoes to clean pots and pans.

My mamí was always an excellent cook (her rice, flautas, and tortitas de papa were unrivaled), so I thought nothing of the smell of cooked salt and potatoes or nopales (cactus) emanating from the kitchen on a weekday night when I was a kid. Come to find out — my mamí was simply boiling these to loosen up the burnt parts on the inside of her pots and pans. Apparently, potatoes contain oxalic acid, which is helpful in breaking down rust, making potatoes trusty tools for plenty of cleaning jobs

Nopales, on the other hand, are slimy and acidic which are perfect for cleaning up grimy residue from pots and pans. After trimming the edges and slicing off the thorns, my mamí would cook a nopal, let it simmer for about 20 minutes, and then scrub the pot or pan thoroughly with a scouring sponge. I’ve used her potato hack to clean my cast iron skillet and a saucepan, but I’d rather use a nopal for some delicious nopales con huevo for breakfast. 

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Cyd McDowell

6. Use coffee and cinnamon to get rid of strong kitchen smells.

The scents of coffee and cinnamon are necessary in any Mexican home (how else would we make our beloved cafe de olla?), which is why my mom would put coffee beans in a pan on low heat or simmer cinnamon sticks and water in a small saucepan after cooking meals that were particularly pungent. She’d always do this after cooking anything with spicy peppers and onions. The aroma was warm and calming, and let me know the day was winding down. I still use this tip now, after my husband cooks, and it always reminds me of my childhood home. 

Credit: Joe Lingeman

7. Use limes to clean your fingers.

I mean it — we love limes! While stainless steel bars are often used to get rid of garlic and onion smells, my mamí always instructed us to rub a halved lime on our fingers and fingernails (this was also a great hack for cleaning up after a few tacos, especially because a handful of limes are always included with every plate). Although I do occasionally use a stainless steel bar to get rid of strong odors, a lime leaves that lingering scent I love so much while getting rid of anything left behind underneath my fingernails.

Credit: Cathy Pyle

8. Clean with Coca-Cola.

After limes, Mexicans love Coca-Cola next (and only the Mexican Coke, which is truly superior in taste). It might seem sad to waste a perfectly good Coke to use for cleaning, but for us, it’s quite the opposite. Whether it’s descaling a kettle (fill with Coke, boil, and let sit for half an hour), polishing chrome surfaces, or soaking rusty items to make them look brand new again, Coca-Cola has been reliable in every Mexican home.

Credit: Susanna Hopler/Dzm1try

9. Use cinnamon to keep ants away.

Bugs are almost inevitable in any kitchen, particularly during the warmer months. Because of the climate and housing infrastructure in Mexico, my mamí was very used to getting rid of hormigas and moscas, or ants and flies. She and her sisters would sprinkle ground clove or cinnamon on an ant’s path to repel more from returning. They would also fill plastic bags with water and hang them around windows to effectively ward off flies. My mamí still uses her cinnamon trick on pesky ants, while I have slightly altered this tip to using essential cinnamon oil, which is just as effective. 

10. Always have some música ready. 

“Not a single Latin family cleans without music,” my mamí says. Cleaning, especially deep cleaning, is almost impossible to me without a good playlist. Growing up, this meant salsa and cumbia classics like Celia Cruz, La Sonora Dinamita, and Joe Arroyo. Now, my cleaning playlist consists of those classics that remind me of cleaning the house with my mamí and sister (with a few modern reggaeton and hip-hop favorites). Cleaning is a dance, swiftly moving from one area to the next while being intentional with every step. Why not play some music and enjoy the performance?

What cleaning lessons have you learned from your mom? Tell us in the comments below.