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A family gathering

GREAT-GRANDMA Carmen samples the tamales at the stove. Almost hot. Three-year-old Gerardo giggles as Uncle Eduardo tickles, and Alexander hoots because the Bears have scored. A jumble of young ones play beneath a sombrero in the hallway. Alberto and Ines arrive through the front door; Elvia and J'esus, through the back door. Corina scrubs a pan. Esther puts out the jalapenos. And someone says, ``Where is Uncle Elias?'' It's a kaleidoscope of family life in which English and Spanish phrases spin together, and no scene stays the same for long.

The Mosquedas are gathering -- 21 of them on this Sunday afternoon. A few members are missing because they're working or out-of-town. But the core is here.

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Unlike some clans that wait for holidays to kindle family festivities, the Mosquedas don't need an excuse to congregate. They get together almost every weekend for no reason at all -- other than they're family, and they happen to have fun together. Four generations of them, ranging in age from one month to 66 years, live in five apartments, side by side, above and beneath, in the western area of the city. When the party bell rings, they simply walk next door or upstairs or downstairs.

The women met on Saturday night to make tamales. Ten hands worked three hours to produce 300 tamales for Sunday's gathering. Such a quantity ensured lots of leftovers for everyone's midweek supper.

According to Esther Mosqueda, each Mexican family has its own brand of tamale. Some prefer a little more of this or a little less of that, with all ingredients and quantities filed in the cook's thoughts, not in a recipe box. The Mosquedas mix rice flour with cornmeal for their tamale's outer layer. For the filling, the women created three different mixtures: chicken, pork, and fruit. Steamed in cornhusks, the tamales are served hot and topped with sour cream. Favorite accompaniments include guacamole and a coleslaw combined with tomatoes and jalapenos. For the Mosquedas, atole is a must. Sister to the American milkshake, it's made with strawberries (or chocolate), sugar, milk, a bit of cornstarch for thickening, and a dash of cinnamon. And it's served hot, not cold.

When everything is finally on the table, it's Esther's honor to summon the family. ``Ya prepar'e la comida. Vengan a comer,'' she calls.

Gathered for supper, the Mosquedas are close like seeds in a sunflower's center - not just in proximity, but in philosophy, too. In groups or in toto, they shop together, see movies together, take rides, go dancing, pack picnics, ride roller coasters, watch TV, and have backyard barbecues. When they go to the supermarket, there's a parade of carts heaped high. And they'd never think of hiring a baby sitter; such services are built in.

Elias Mosqueda, who works for United Airlines, was the first family member to come to this country from Mexico, in 1955. And he has inherited the Mosqueda mantle.

``He's the big boss, the father of the family, the big cheese. Everyone listens to him,'' says his niece, Carmen, who has big dark eyes that know how to chuckle.

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If Elias is the father figure, then certainly his sister, Esther, fulfills the family's mother image. She keeps tab on who's where and who needs what, and she has a handkerchief handy if there are any tears. After 19 years of marriage, Esther was divorced and has since resumed the Mosqueda surname. Being the backbone of the domestic scene isn't easy for her because she works from midnight to eight in a plastics plant. With few exceptions, she's the one who engineers the family get-togethers, although the cooking and clean-up chores are shared. So are the party grocery bills.

The Mosquedas own their property, and they swap services to keep it trimmed and polished. Gardening is done by Elias, while his nephew, Rogelio, keeps the decor in shape - a job that includes painting, wallpapering, and refinishing every inch of the woodwork. When the plumbing leaks, who do they call? Rogelio, of course.

Most of the Mosquedas are United States citizens, and all speak English, albeit some handle the second language better than others. Those schooled in the States have an easier time with the idioms and verbs.

Esther, who was already married and a mother when she came to Chicago, had no chance to go back to school. She learned English from her children, and from TV and radio.

``I never let myself listen to Spanish programs,'' she says. ``Only English; learn that way.''

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