Mexico’s Improbable Star

Youtube launched the career of Justin Bieber. He was an unknown Canadian kid, putting home videos on the website when he was “discovered” and a year or two later, we all cursed Youtube. But we knew Bieber’s name. It seemed fitting because to many, like me, when you think “Youtube” you think music. The new MTV, a video jukebox of music videos both official, and homemade by fans. But there are of course, a lot more things going on that lure the billion-plus users to the site some five billion times a day!

I for instance am a weather nerd, and have seen countless videos of tornadoes and other storms from the ground captured on video by both professional storm chasers and amateurs who happened to be at the right (or wrong?) place at the right time. My sweetie loves seasonal decorations and has found a whole network of ordinary people who craft and decorate their homes for July 4th, fall, Easter, Guy Fawkes day, Halloween, and of course Christmas. She’s gotten a few good ideas from them and doubtlessly hours of relaxation watching Dollar Tree signs being repainted into something decorative and pumpkins repurposed. Recently the two of us happened upon one of the internet’s most unlikely stars – Dona Angela, a 70 year-old Mexican grandmother.

Angela is an aging farm wife who lives in Michoacan, a rural area of southern Mexico, and speaks no English. She cooks traditional Mexican food in a most rustic way… and has over three million followers!

Remarkably, the Spanish-speaking lady who seemingly has no running water nor kitchen in the house, only began posting videos mid-way through 2019. One of her daughters (her two daughters and husband occasionally show up on her videos to assist, or enjoy her finished food) was a Youtube fan and started recording her mom with the phone and posting the videos. Within two months, the “channel” – De Mi Ranch e Tu Cocina (“from my ranch to your kitchen”) had hit an extraordinary million subscribers. Now it’s well past triple that, and some individual clips, like one for enchiladas have been seen over seven million times.

Dona cooks in what seems to be an outdoor, but partly enclosed kitchen, which revolves around a large wood-fired stove. She uses mainly traditional implements like a molcajete, a stone mortar and pestle she grinds spices and flattens dough on. The tomatoes, peppers, avocadoes and more come from her garden as do, one would suspect, the chickens and pigs that provide most of the meat and occasionally wander by. She says “I don’t use measurements, I just grab with my fingers.” When you’re 70 and have probably been cooking for six of those seven decades, you can probably do that and get good results! Likewise, the cooking temperature is unregulated since it’s just coming from a wood fire in an iron stove. Her one concession to modern times is an electric blender she likes for her sauces. She shows you the ingredients, how she prepares them, how she cooks them up, in a variety of old metal and clay pots and pans, and let’s you know how they turned out … mostly “just like I like it!”. This I, and most of us, know from the subcaptions, since she speaks only Spanish. One video showed her getting Youtube award plaques for hitting first 100 000 then one million subscribers. She opens the boxes and is obviously delighted with, but she and her daughter tell the viewers there’s a congratulatory letter too but neither of them can read it, since it’s in English.

Over the wood fire she creates a mouth-watering assortment of Mexican staples like salsa, mole (a type of soup, not the little critter), napoles or cactus, tortiallas and of course, tamales.

Forbes recently listed her along with Selma Hayek as one of the most influential women in Mexico. One could imagine that with that endorsement, not to mention the Youtube plaques, she could easily turn the fame into a Food Network show and big-selling cookbook. “The Pioneer Woman From South of the Border!” Nor is it hard to cynically wonder if the wood stove and rugged kitchen it sits in aren’t a soundstage, perhaps beside a fancy home with state of the art food processors and microwaves. But that’s not Dona, apparently. Both the Houston Chronicle and NPR have featured her lately, and both failed to be able to get her to speak to them. She will apparently answer a few questions about her cooking, or defend herself to critics who suggest her stove looks dirty or such, but when it comes to mainstream media… and the dollars they represent… she’s a ghost. Making herself a “star”, or getting rich by her recipes isn’t in her plans apparently. Making more tamales and atoles by hand over a fire outside, for her family to enjoy, are.

I think there are a few takeaways from this.

For instance, these days we can become successful on a low budget. Yes, it’s still uncommon, but one can become a well-loved author without having Random House or Penguin backing you; one can become a star musician in your basement with a computer, an instrument or two and video camera. That’s a definite plus to social media, a part of our lives which has its share of negative attributes as well. A 70 year old cooking tamales outdoors in the 1980s would have been known only as far and wide as her crowing roosters could be heard. Now, she can be an international influencer. A tween Justin Bieber singing in his bathroom in the 1970s would have likely been stacking cans of beans at his local Loblaws ten years later, not on magazine covers. I suppose we shouldn’t blame the internet for that…

Secondly, we all have stories to tell and talents to share. You might not be able to cook from scratch, but if you can fix an oil pump or make a nice wreath for your door at Christmas for ten bucks or get rid of a wasp nest in your shed without using toxic sprays, or…well, you get the idea, there are people who’d like to know how. You can make others’ lives better by sharing. Likewise, maybe you have lived through history. Veterans. White House staff. People in the San Francisco earthquake in the ’80s. Firefighters. Best boys on 20th Century Fox sets. All have stories that would be interesting for the rest of us to hear. I bet you do too.

As well, your own family’s history is worth documenting… and there’s no better time than now. Maybe it’s the food you cook, like Angela, maybe it’s the trips you took, maybe it’s the array of cars you owned or the girlfriends/boyfriends you hung out with before you got married… there are a lot of stories there that you might like recalling. And future generations will thank you for. My mom was in London during “the blitz” in World War II. She saw the Queen Mother walking around the rubble talking to people, which probably colored her views on the royal family for life at a very young age. My dad worked with John Kay of Steppenwolf, before he was a rock star in Steppenwolf. So many stories and traditions to share… it might not make for Youtube videos, but that part of your heritage is worth preserving, just like Dona’s old ways of making her own tortillas.

Lastly, be authentic. Be yourself. Dona Angela is. She could wear designer clothes, disguise the wrinkles on her face, flash name brand spices and fancy cookware at the camera. Maybe sip on a Coca Cola with the label front and center in exchange for endorsements, be phoning up the newspapers and public radio for interviews to talk up her web videos. But she does none of that, and her fans love her for it. We already have enough fake “reality” anyway.

Maybe you’ll never get to three million subscribers on Youtube, or 100 000 readers here on WordPress or be on any list made by Forbes. But you do have something to say, and share.