“Don’t eat tortillas. They make you fat!”
If my great grandmother knew I loved tortillas and tortilla chips more than tostones, she’d be turning in her grave. I can’t help it, I’m half Mexican! But, my other half is Puerto Rican. America, her name derived from her father, a merchant marine (obviously), was from San Juan, Puerto Rico. A poor country girl with twelve siblings, sent off to San Juan at the age of ten to work for a rich family, excelled at two things: survival and cooking. In the thirties, her sinister fiancé bought her passage to Ellis Island, married her (although, unbeknownst to her, he already had a wife!), impregnated her, and disappeared off the planet leaving her poor, desolate, and English-less in Harlem. Through many perils, grueling jobs, a big leap to the west coast, and navigating a disheartening, bigoted world, she managed to raise her daughter, her daughter’s daughter, and eventually, me.
America never told anyone, “I love you”. Never. She was crass, brutally blunt, and had a snickery chuckle. It was always, “You look skinny”, “You look black!”, “Are you on dope?”. I didn’t mind skinny and black, since who doesn’t want to be thin and tan? But, the last one….really grandma?! Yet, after her off-the-wall remarks and sly smirk, she’d entice me to the plastic florally doily covered kitchen table laid out with arroz con gandules, crispy salted tostones, garlic roasted pollo, and a glass of fresh squeezed orange juice. My grandma could say whatever she wanted- I knew she loved me!
And that’s how America showed her love. Through food. Not a morning I spent with her went by without a saucer of fresh fruit, café (a lot of foamy milk with a bit of instant coffee), an egg, and a slice of French bread slathered in garlic and olive oil. Lunches and dinners consisted of Puerto Rican dishes such as sopa de pollo, arroz con pollo y gandules, arroz con habichuelas rojas, pasteles, mofongo, bacalao, vinegar steak- oh man, how I’m longing for all this right now, I can’t go on! Every dish was always accompanied by platanos maduros, tostones, and tomato and avocado slices. Plus the fresh orange juice or lemonade. And sometimes, depending on how much she felt like loving you that day, she’d magically whip out a sweet, fluffy, homemade flan, just when I thought I couldn’t possibly eat anymore.
So it went on, during my childhood when she’d chase me with a broom, through most of my adult years. I showed my love by coming to see America regularly, and she showed hers by feeding me, and eventually my children, knowing she was keeping us alive and well. When I went off to college and the real world, she always sent me home with a care package that sometimes included a hundred dollar bill in my pocket to “buy food”. And I always did, whether at Costco for my family, at the mall food court, or on the go in drive throughs in between practices and on road trips. Even though it was always something like, “You look pale”, “Let me brush your hair”, “Don’t you have an iron?”, or “Don’t you feed your kids?”, her love for me was unwavering.
Although now physically gone, America is the link to my Puerto Rican heritage. I was practically raised in her kitchen, inhaling sweet garlicky aromas, feeling the constant warmth of the retro O’Keefe & Merritt, and watching her perform a dance with wooden spoons, knives, and raw meat. As a young adult, I took notes on many dishes, hoping to record these awesome recipes for my own attempts someday. It was a bit difficult keeping up with her dashes here and there, since she never measured anything and the timer was always in her head. When I pressed her, she humored me with roundabout measurements on the fly that I could write down and put my compartmentalized mind at ease. Through trial and error and many attempts, I can finally perform these recipes with successful results, not with the same finesse as my great grandmother, but with the same love and sense of pride.
Cooking, not just merely eating, Puerto Rican food keeps that connectedness, always, with my Great Grandma America and the heritage she passed down to me from my people on an island I have never known. How devastated would she be right now, knowing distant relatives are suffering from a hurricane aftermath, leaving them homeless and powerless. But wait…one of my great-grandma’s strong suits was survival. She was an impoverished country girl from a small village who could turn stones into savory Puerto Rican cuisine and who became a matriarch to teachers, engineers, activists, artists, and writers. Because of her, I know the rest of her people, my people, are survivors too, and will continue to cook, eat, love, and therefore rise again.