I met Isabel at a farmers market in St. Andrews - Nova Scotia, Canada. The market was setting up in front of the harbor early in the morning when I walked out of my hotel and crossed the street. I watch as vendors set up, hoping to find a biscuit or scone and a cup of coffee. While doing that, my eyes lock on a woman setting up a table where a sign for Pico de Gallo is written just below the base of the table. When I look closely, I realize she looks like a Latina. I walked over.
I don’t waste time and immediately begin speaking Spanish. Her jaw drops and she takes a step back, looking a bit stunned.
“Me llamo Marta,” I say as I reach out to her. She smiles and we hug, as if we were old friends.
She tells me that her name is Isabel and she is from Matamoros, Tamaulipas, a Mexican town that borders Brownsville, Texas. We carry on in Spanish while she finishes setting up her table. She chatters away for almost ½ hour, and I get the distinct feeling that she has not spoken Spanish in a long time. I hardly get a word in, but I do ask many questions, nod in understanding and smile when I hear her talk about her life away from a warm climate.
She is married to a Canadian, a fisherman. They met in Mexico, when he was working on a boat in the Gulf of México. Her sister, who later also married a Canadian introduced to her by Isabel, lived with them in St. Andrews for a while, but then returned to the U.S. to live in Florida where the weather was more friendly.
“When we first moved here, my sister and I were the only ‘brown skinned’ people in this area. We got a lot of stares. At first it made me sad, but then everyone - including us - got used to each other and we managed to blend in.”
I ask where she gets the ingredients she uses to create her recipes: pico de gallo, corn salsa, chimichurri sauce and tostadas (tortilla chips).
“I grow them in my garden, and in the case of the tostadas, I fry them myself.” she says. “When I first moved here, my sister and I missed our food so much, we would go to all the markets in the area searching for something as simple as a jalapeño pepper. There was absolutely nothing! My husband and I would sometimes go camping in New Hampshire, and when I was there I would buy lots of Latino food and bring it back and we would “horde” it so it wouldn’t go so fast (she laughs).”
“Finally, we convinced a local market owner to import canned food. It was not the same as fresh food, but it was all we had.” Then Isabel started a garden and shared some of her salsas with neighbors, who then encouraged her to set up a stand at the weekly farmer’s market. That was seven years ago, Isabel tells me, and it’s here where she is among a small family of vendors who offer support and barter with her to exchange their goods for free samples.
Isabel tells me about another sister, still in Matamoros, who recently divorced and how worried she is about her. “I want her to come live with me, to see how good life is here. I think the Mexican border, where my family lives, is so dangerous! I read about all the shootings and the Drug Lords and I worry about my family. I often tell my sister that she should move here, but she has visited and does not like the weather. I guess I don’t blame her, but I believe she will be safer here. Also, I love having family close. I do miss them and my culture.”
Customers come and go, and Isabel chatters in Spanish with me while selling her wares. She certainly misses speaking her native language, I can tell! But eventually, I feel it’s getting late and I begin to feel anxious about getting back on the road and back across the border to Calais. While she is waiting on a customer who is buying four jars of corn salsa, I back away and wave good-bye. She smiles and wishes me well.