The Hacienda by Isabel Cañas

The revolutionary era of Mexico seems to be a popular literary backdrop these days, which I appreciate because it shines a light on an era that I personally know little about. Growing up in New Mexico, the connection with Mexico was of course a significant part of our culture, and I have a vivid memory of taking a drive up into the northern part of our state and seeing a billboard of legendary revolutionary fighter Emiliano Zapata, who famously said “es mejor que morir de pie que vivir de rodillas“, or as we say in English “it’s better to die on your feet than live on your knees.” This connection between the land retention mentality that was (and is) very strong in northern New Mexico and the revolutionary mindset born during the Mexican War of Independence that continues to this day, was really the start of my wanting to learn more about this fascinating time in Mexican history.

The book The Hacienda is what I would classify as modern Gothic. Gothic elements in literature almost always consist of a castle or a mansion that is haunted or has a spooky, eerie feeling; a damsel in distress; hidden rooms and passageways; elements of the supernatural, forbidden romance or a doomed romantic relationship, disturbing dreams or visions, and an overall sense of fear. The protagonist, a young woman named Beatriz, has just married Don Rodolfo Solorzano in 1830s Mexico. Her father, a general in the Mexican army, has recently been killed by a mob of revolutionaries and in order to escape life with her hateful aunt and genteel poverty, Beatriz agrees to become Señora Solorzano and move out to Hacienda San Isidro with her new husband, The house is on a large plot of land worked by indigenous people, most of whom are treated little better than slaves.

Hacienda San Isidro is home to Rodolfo’s creepy-ass sister Juana, two maidservants Paloma and Ana Luisa, many other land workers, the estate priest Father Andrés, and of course, an evil spirit that haunts the house and begins terrorizing Beatriz almost immediately. The spirit is that of Maria Catalina, the first Señora Solorzano, and it’s clear she does not want a new second wife on the premises. You can see the homage to Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca, which is possibly my favorite Gothic novel of all time, and of course the comparisons to Mexican Gothic by Silvia Rodriguez-Garcia are natural because of the setting, the timeframe and the overall flavor of both books. I’d also say there are some Thorn Birds elements here, given that Beátriz and Andrés develop a strong romantic connection, though they don’t consummate the relationship, which is pretty cool because it leaves an opening for a sequel. The overall literary style of writing is a tad melodramatic for me, but that’s just my inherent dislike of “chick lit,” into which category this book could fall. However, the Gothic themes and strong connection to the book Rebecca keep it strongly in the creepy, eerie literature tradition. So hell to the yes on that!

As well, I really enjoyed the social commentary aspect of the book. It shines a light on the massive class differences that were so much a part of Mexican history and culture for centuries (and likely still is). Without being pedantic or finger-wagging, this book takes on topics of love, class and race, Mexican folklore and history, and religion, and the combination is an attractive one. Beatriz is a strong-willed character who is willing to fight for what she believes in, and who also has been able to survive her father’s assassination, her mother’s abandonment after her marriage to Rodolfo, learning about her husband’s sexual assault of the young indigenous female maids who have worked in the house, and the horror of the evil spirit haunting the hacienda and all who live there. Her strength of character comes across most ardently in a scene where, after one of the cooks is found dead at the hand of the ghost, Beatriz joins the remaining maidservant Paloma in the kitchen to cook a meal for her returning husband. Paloma is surprised that Beatriz knows how to cook, as this was not considered a skill that the wife of a wealthy landowner would have during that time.

” ‘What are we making?’ Her voice was taut. I knew that feeling. She itched to work with her hands, to forget. ‘Something simple and filling,” I said. “Arroz con pollo,” I decided. “It will be easy to make a lot. Padre Andrés is exhausted…….” A long moment passed. Paloma continued cutting up the chicken into the appropriate-sized pieces. Instead of answering, she asked another question. ‘How is it that a woman of your class is like this?’ ‘What?’ I said. Mad? I wondered. ‘Useful.’ “

Arroz con pollo, which translates to rice with chicken, is a deceptively simple dish. In reality, it is one of the most delicious ways to eat these two basic foods together. Adding the spice of cumin, the heat of jalapeños, the tang of tomato and the bite of onion to good-quality chicken thighs and basmati rice make this a spectacular and easy meal that can be adjusted to feed a few people or a large crowd.

4 organic chicken thighs, bone in and skin on
1.5 cups basmati rice
3 cups chicken stock
4 Campari tomatoes
1/2 red onion
6 garlic cloves
1 jalapeño
1 tablespoon Mexican oregano
1 teaspoon cumin
Salt and pepper to taste

Heat your oven to 400F. Rinse and de-stem the tomatoes, and roast them for 30 minutes, then peel off the skins when cool enough.

Heat a couple of tablespoons of oil in a heavy cast-iron skillet and brown the chicken for about 5-6 minutes on each side. Once browned, set the chicken aside.

In the same pan, add the rice and cook for a few minutes, stirring frequently. You want to brown the rice but don’t let it burn.

While the rice is cooking, add the roasted tomatoes, the onion, jalapeño, and garlic cloves into a small food chopper, and combine well.

Once the rice is opaque and light brown and has a nutty scent, add in the tomato-jalapeño mix and stir to combine well. Cook for a couple minutes, stirring regularly.

Add in the chicken stock, the Mexican oregano and the cumin and taste for seasoning. Add salt and pepper as needed.

Add the browned chicken to the pan with the rice. Bring up to a hard boil, then reduce to low heat, cover, and let the mixture simmer for 30 minutes.

Once the rice has absorbed all the liquid, remove from the heat and let the chicken and rice steam for another 5 minutes, covered. Then serve the chicken plated over a bed of the rice. If you have cilantro, fee l free to garnish as you like. A squeeze of lime would also be lovely!

8 thoughts on “The Hacienda by Isabel Cañas

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