Even in little city, we're in our element

A trip to a little city in Idaho is a tough sell for a Las Vegas man with little vacation time. When it's the birthplace of his wife and the home to most of her extended family, however, he doesn't have to be sold on the city - just the people. That's how I saw it, anyway.

After close to six years together, my husband and I finally made the trip together to visit my tios and tias (uncles and aunts), primos and primas (male and female cousins) in Nampa, Idaho. Expectations were high.

As a kid, my family took annual summer trips to Nampa. A week with my cousins made for memories that lasted through the year. I cried soap opera tears when hugging them goodbye, but laughed myself to sleep on the way home, thinking of the crazy stunts we pulled.

Back then, Nampa's modest size didn't register with me. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 81,557 people populate it. Not exactly Mayberry, but hardly a metropolis, either. It's a smaller city. Smaller cities can spur boredom. If residents are troubled, that might spur crime.

That's why I had this little talk with my husband before our trip: "A lot of my cousins have been to jail. Some have been to prison. And, just so you know, a couple have tattoos on their faces."

The first cousin we visited could checkmark all three. He stood on his porch like a protective bulldog as we pulled up to his house, his oldest daughter tied around his leg.

The last time I saw this cousin, 15 years ago, he'd just served 10 years in prison. We had a lot of catching up to do.

His living room felt cool, courtesy of a generous air conditioner. Family photos dotted the walls. Black and yellow NFL memorabilia filled a shelf in the corner. How a Texas-born, Idaho-raised man became a Pittsburgh Steelers fan, I couldn't be sure, but why question it.

Over several hours and four large pizzas, my husband and I, along with my two sisters, two nephews and a family friend, listened to him recount the time he served, the sickness that killed his brother a few years ago and the crystal meth problem he battled.

I kept peeking over at my husband, trying to gauge a reaction. My first meeting with his extended family went much differently. For starters, the trip required passports. The aunt and uncle we stayed with in Paraguay lived in a beautiful house with more than one Mercedes parked in the driveway. When his cousins convened, some brought their live-in nannies along.

As my cousin spoke, my husband nodded his head and heartily laughed at his animated storytelling.

The subjects my cousin couldn't talk about enough, though, took turns climbing him like a backyard tree as their mom smiled from the couch. He's a family man now.

That he never knew his own dad was underscored when he shared the kind of stories only a contrite criminal can share. For more than a decade, I've heard similar tales from a much different narrator. My brother, who once shot marbles with this cousin until the wee hours of the night, works in law enforcement. The two were inseparable before my family left Idaho in 1981.

A few years before we moved away, my cousin told us, my dad bestowed him with an NFL jersey. He never forgot the moment and he never forgot the team. He's been a Steelers fan ever since.

As we swayed back and forth on a bench swing outside, my husband told me he was having a great time, my cousin was "hilarious," and the Idaho weather felt perfect. And, we had yet to taste some amazing Mexican food.

My cousin Sonia comfortably wears an apron, which might explain why the food she prepared us the next day tasted so comforting. While scooping seconds, my husband raved about her chile con carne, arroz y frijoles, and my tia's fresh tortillas. (And, by fresh I don't mean peeled from plastic.)

The meal silenced a house full of Garzas who stopped chattering to shovel the edible love into our loud mouths. That in itself marked the highest of compliments to the chefs. It takes something truly special to shut us up.

But a game of kickball will get us going again. My Guerrero and Salas side of the family got together for some drinks and a quick little game in my cousin Celesta's backyard. My husband is still disputing that call on third. His mother-in-law, he'll tell you, thought he was safe, too.

The first night we tucked ourselves into bed, he told me he couldn't remember the last time he laughed so hard. The second night, he kept bursting into laughter as I was two winks from slumber.

I don't know if he's sold on Nampa, but he's definitely sold on the people.

Contact Xazmin Garza at xgarza@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0477. Follow her on Twitter @startswithanx.