In a Oaxacan cooking class years ago you learned you could not make tortillas. The masa became a messy paste in your dull hands. And then you dropped the jumble to the floor. Doña Soledad, your not-so-patient teacher, exclaimed, “You can never marry a Mexican man.” Her prohibition highlighted the magnitude of your failure. You were relieved you were already married, but it was still a shocking testament to your capacity to disappoint people with your cooking.

The next day, determined to redeem yourself, you made a perfect tamale. The masa was spread at the correct measure; the filling was just enough; your swaddling was firm. Doña Soledad praised you publicly and even recanted part of her prohibition, winking and saying: “Okay, you can marry a Mexican man…as long as he doesn’t eat tortillas.”

In cooking class this time you know you have no business trying to make a tortilla, but you remove your rings, keep your palms moist, breathe. The tortilla turns out competently.

Over the stove, the instructor informs you that, if you time it right, the tortilla will inflate. If it does, you will get married.

Of all of the tortillas, only yours puffs up. You have redeemed yourself.

Edmund Dorset’s “On Failure” speaks to the importance of small victories like mine: (see the bottom poem)

  • The tortilla puffing up is an example of a superstition. Consider the following superstition prompts from The Academy of American Poets (
    1. Cover your mouth when you yawn or evil spirits will fly into your body.
    2. If you sit by a fire with a group of friends and a person’s shadow does not appear to have a head, that person will be the first to die.
    3. If a bird frightens a pregnant woman, her child will be born with a wing instead of an arm.
    4. “A mole on the arm can do you no harm, a mole on your lip—you are witty and flip. A mole on your neck brings money by the peck, but a mole on your back brings money by the sack.”
    5. If a hen runs into your house, you will receive important visitors.
    6. If a person’s eyebrows join at the nose, they are not to be trusted.
    7. If you can catch a dragonfly, you will be married within the year.
    8. Dimples are a sign that God has touched you with favor, but “a dimple on the chin means a devil within.”

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