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Sunday, February 10, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Jerry Large / Times staff columnist

Many of us are a rich blend of flavors

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Mexican food catches my attention, so when someone mentioned there was a Mexican take-out place in Madrona, I had to check it out. Word of mouth brings a lot of good things.

In this instance, I got to meet Naomi Andrade Smith and hear her story.

Smith owns Villa Victoria Catering, at 1123 34th Ave. The establishment is a sliver of space, the front of which is painted red and topped by a yellow awning. Customers make their orders and get their food through a window.

I ordered more than I should have, and while I was waiting, Smith asked about my pronunciation of Spanish words. I explained that I'd grown up in New Mexico and studied Spanish in college.

Since we were talking about origins and language acquisition, I asked about hers. That was all she needed to launch into her family's saga in which the lines ran from Africa to Oklahoma to Tampico, and from Spain to Michoacan.

Cooking isn't the only place where fusion happens.

We all have a story to tell, but not all of us recognize what that story might be or how we might tell it.

Smith is fortunate because she knows her story, she is energized by the need to tell it and she finds pleasure in her medium.

She wants people to know Afro-Mexicans exist and that they have contributed to Mexico and to the world.

Of course, I was pretty hungry that day, so she had to wait awhile to tell me the whole thing. Last week, I settled into her living room and listened.

Her great-grandfather, who was born in slavery, decided in the early 1900s that a black man might do better in Mexico, so he moved to Garrapatas, a small town outside Tampico in eastern Mexico. He started a farm and raised fruit trees and cows and built a house with a porch running around it.

As World War I wound down in 1918, the number of lynchings of black men in the United States went back up to where it had been before the war. Smith's grandfather took a trip back north to persuade his relatives to come live in Mexico.

The sheriff in Ardmore threatened to kill him for trying to drive off labor that was needed in Oklahoma. So he left with his grandson, Smith's father. The next year, the rest of the extended family moved to Mexico.

Years before that, on Smith's mother's side, Rafael Andrade was working as an itinerant butcher in Michoacan state when he was picked up by revolutionaries and taken to their leader. He feared they would kill him because he had been an official in the army of Mexican dictator Porfirio Diaz.

The leader recognized him. "Is that you, Rafael?" he asked. "Si, mi general." The general was Pancho Villa, who remembered that Andrade had shown leniency to revolutionaries.

Villa gave him some sugar and chocolate "to give to Maria so the baby will have lots of milk." The baby was Smith's mother.

Andrade died in the flu epidemic of 1918. His wife left their daughter with an aunt because she couldn't support her. Some years later, the mother came back for her daughter and took her to Tampico, where the mother died a few months later, leaving her teenage daughter alone.

Smith's father would pass the Andrade house every day delivering milk on his way to work at a Shell Oil plant, and that is how they met.

She had two children already when they married. They had two sons, who died, then a daughter before they decided to move to the United States. Smith says her father thought things were better after World War II for black Americans, and also his doctor had told him he would suffer less from malaria if he left the tropics.

He came north first, then sent for the family. When he met them at the bus station in Arizona, he wasn't allowed into the station because he was black. That was her mother's first experience with the life of black people in the United States.

They settled in Los Angeles, and that's where Smith was born and grew up.

Because Smith's father died in 1957, when she was 8, it was her mother who kept the family stories alive.

Smith says, "I grew up not seeing my color. I don't feel black or Mexican. I'm me. I'm culturally both."

Just over 20 years ago, she came to Bellingham to visit her closest high-school friend and wound up staying. She started a gospel-music show on a local radio station and met her future husband, who had a jazz program on a station in Washington, D.C., when he came to Bellingham for a radio conference.

He's German and French, so their daughter has a lot of currents to draw upon.

While Smith does not feel bound by her heritages, she is interested in them. She collects African diaspora art from Mexico. Masks adorn her walls, and she showed an 18th-century wooden block that was used to mold sugar. Two of them hold candles on her mantlepiece.

She brings out photographs of black people in beautiful Mexican folk dresses. She takes the pictures when she attends an annual convention of Afro-Mexicans. She wants Americans to know about this culturally rich part of Mexico.

Ultimately, she wants to write an Afro-Mexican cookbook. Food has always been important to her. "Food is a focus, a way to see myself," she says.

When she was working as a secretary for the city in Bellingham, she'd come home late at night after a council meeting and cook to relax.

She started catering out of her home in Seattle six years ago, and a year ago opened the restaurant because she believes that will give more credibility to her cookbook.

And the cookbook will be a way of telling the world about Afro-Mexicans a different kind of word of mouth.

Jerry Large can be reached at 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists.

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