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Reusing Items Around The House, The Mexican Way

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My mother recycled before it was cool. Her mother taught her. I understood this as a part of our Mexican culture that dates to when my ancestors would hunt for food and make use of every part of the animal.

This practice had to be done due to a lack of or limited resources. My grandmother and great-grandmother did not have much money, though my mother fared a bit better. Now, I continue many of these practices in my home due to habit, culture, and my environment.

By now, we all know that it is our duty to recycle and reuse as much as possible to reduce waste on the planet. This is the environmental thing to do and will make for a greener world for future generations. But how often do we need to consult a list to do the green thing? How often must we be reminded to toss our soda cans into the recycling bin or use a refillable water bottle? For me, and many of us who grew up with the everyday practice of reusing items, not often at all.

Cultural practices can be second nature. Anything you grew up doing daily or saw your parents or relatives doing is likely already ingrained in your way of life. Maybe you take your shoes off when entering your own home; perhaps you cross yourself before embarking on a road trip, or maybe you rub aloe vera on every scratch, burn, or rash. When you do these things, it is because they are part of your culture. Recycling and reusing have always been a part of my culture.

Recycling involves taking an item apart and creating something new but reusing keeps it whole while repurposing it for different uses. As such, reusing things saves time, resources, and money while reducing waste.

Naturally, some items simply cannot be reused. You would never want to attempt to reuse a coffee filter, for example. But if an item is made of metal, plastic, wood, fabric, or other durable material, it can be deemed as "still good," even if for a different purpose than intended.

Growing up, we were taught to be economical and resourceful. If an item were durable and could be used again for a different purpose, my mother would find that purpose. As a result, every part of our house was filled with reused items. Here are some ways to reuse items.

In the kitchen

In our house, almost every container, whether it be a shoebox, food tub, or cookie tin, was filled with something new to be reused once it was empty. For example, in our fridge, leftovers were stored in old margarine tubs. You never knew if the tub contained actual margarine or leftover frijoles until you opened it up to see!

Extra-large soft drink cups that were made of plastic always came home to be washed, stored, and reused for either drinking or watering plants. Likewise, plastic cold-cut containers got the same treatment and were reused for leftovers.

When you are cleaning

On cleaning days, my mother really showed off her reusing skills. First, she made a mopping solution in an old laundry soap bulk- bucket. Her cleaning rags were old bits of shirts we had outgrown years ago. Next, mom wiped the windows with old newspapers. This technique creates less streaks than using paper towels. 

All our small waste bins were lined with plastic grocery store bags. This was more efficient than using a small trash bag or keeping the bin unlined. On trash day, you simply grab the bag by the handles and lift it out.

During special occasions

Holidays and birthdays were nice and tidy, sometimes. My aunt made attempts to encourage us to open our gifts slowly and thoughtfully to “save the paper.” That suggestion rarely worked, and even my mother thought that was an unreasonable request for children. But mom requested us to save gift bags, which we always found reasonable. She would fold the gift bags up nicely and store them in the wrapping section of our hall closet.

In the kitchen

My mother even reused food. This tradition is not solely Mexican, though she did add her cultural flair. On Thanksgiving or Christmas, we had turkey dinner for one meal. After that, it was turkey enchiladas, turkey machaca, or turkey caldo.

For your sewing projects

Have you ever opened a tin box hoping to find shortbread cookies only to be met with sewing supplies? You are not alone. And whoever put those supplies in that tin successfully reduced a small amount of potential waste.

Following my grandmother and great-grandmother's footsteps, my mother was a master seamstress. My grandmother would sew dresses out of flour sacks, which in those days were made of floral print material. It wasn’t often that my mother would sew clothes, but when it came to reusing fabric products, she often created new things without a pattern.

I fondly remember a doll that my mother made me using old stockings, buttons, a t-shirt, and pillow filling. It was a gesture that showed her resourcefulness and her love. It was a gift made by her hands, and it was something I treasured for years.

Environmentalism is nothing new for those of us who grew up knowing that there can and should be multiple uses and purposes for a single item. Reusing is a way to nurture culture, family, and the environment.

Edited by Niko Balkaran.

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