Why does the death of my grandfather, a man I never met and my father hardly knew, fascinate me?
War is no light matter, we are all touched by it. I have been touched by it. My family a casualty of it.
War is a part of my history.
To bring war out of the history books, out of the television, the newspapers, out of one’s imagination, out of my imagination, I felt a need to retrace the final days of my grandfather’s life.
When my older brother mentioned he was going to France to find Opa’s grave, I had to go along. I wanted to make my history, my reality. I wanted to see and feel the place where the battles of Normandy freed a continent on the souls of so many men. I wanted to own the small fraction of that piece of history that was my heritage.
I sat at the table watching my grandmother uncover the large pot sitting on the stove. As steam billowed from under the cover, the fragrance of oregano, garlic, onion, tomato, chicken and a hint of white wine, tickled my nose and made my stomach growl. I eagerly awaited my plate of arroz con pollo piled high chicken with rice dotted with green peas, bell peppers and red pimentos. Before I dove into my dinner of this dish, that I consider my childhood favorite, my grandmother placed a paper towel lined plate piled high with tostones, twice fried green plantains, sprinkled with the right amount of salt. The tostones would serve as part food item, part utensil, helping push the rice and chicken onto my fork before I took each mouth-watering bite.
This is the vision I have of Sunday dinner at my grandmother’s house. She lived in a townhouse, three blocks away from the apartment I shared in Chicago with my mom, dad and older brother. It was a different world from my multicultural German, Cuban household. In her house Cuba was the root of everything, or so I thought in my child’s mind. Her cooking, the music she played and her language, was all Cuban. Thanks to her, I learned to cook tostones and arroz con pollo. And whenever I want to get in touch with my Cuban roots, energizing my Cuban DNA, and remember my grandmother I cook these two things.
This time I needed some help to remember the ingredients. Thanks to inspiration from My Big Fat Cuban Family blog and the cookbook my grandmother left me, Cocina Criolla by Nitza Villapol, I began my journey towards feeling Cuban in Seattle.
Not only did I want to reignite my internal Cubana, I wanted to use up some food I had in the house. Nitza’s recipe calls for two whole chickens. I had two boneless, skinless breasts in the fridge, this was a problem. I recalled my grandmother loved cooking with chicken thighs, for flavor and for economic reasons, so I headed to the store to buy four chicken thighs plus strained tomatoes, plantain, an onion, dry white wine and bell pepper (red and green). The rest were in the pantry or cupboard.
The first step is to marinade the chicken in a cup or two of sour orange juice and several cloves of garlic (minced) for at least an hour. Since I live far from where bitter oranges grow, and have never looked to see if it is sold bottled anywhere in Seattle, my trick is to use orange juice and a splash of lime.
While the chicken was marinading, I began prepping the rest of the ingredients. My grandmother never liked cooking with canned or bottled vegetables, but most recipes for arroz con pollo call for canned peas, asparagus and bottled pimentos. Since I grew up with a mother who cooked from a can, box and frozen meals, (she was a woman caught in the age of “easy food”), I too stay away from those things. So I made my own pimiento with red bell pepper (yes I know pimiento is different from red bell pepper), used frozen green peas (petite peas would be better) and fresh asparagus (which I just so happened to have in the fridge).
To make my version of bottled pimiento, I fire-roasted the red bell pepper to char the skin, about 10-15 minutes, turning every few minutes, to get an even char. Then I place the roasted bell pepper into a paper bag to continue steaming the pepper, about 5 minutes. Now the pepper was ready for pealing, the skin should come off fairly easily with your fingers. What I love about this method, is you get a nice smokey flavor on the bell pepper and the consistency is just like the bottled pimiento.
I browned the chicken in some olive oil using a large, deep skillet. Once browned, take the chicken out of the pan and deglaze pan with white wine, getting all the flavor-filled tidbits off the bottom of the pan. The pan is now ready for making the sofrito. Add the green bell pepper and onion, stir until they are soft. The smell of the sofrito will transport you to my grandmother’s kitchen. Find an album by Paquito D’Rivera (I was playing Havana-Rio Connection album playing in the background) and you may get a nostalgic vision of Cuba B.C. (before Castro)
The sofrito continues to cook by adding the tomato sauce (about 1.5 cups), white wine (1.5-2 cups), cumin (1 tsp), and oregano (hefty tsp). Once combined, the pan is ready to add the rice (3 cups), chicken stock (2 cups), two bay leaves, and annato for color (1 tsp).
Ok, here is another place where I deviate from Nitza’s and other recipes. Many recipes ask you to add Accent or some spice pack from Goya. I don’t add these because their main, if not only, ingredient is MSG (you know the stuff you don’t want to eat at Chinese restaurants, monosodium glutamate). Instead, I add a little more salt than the recipe calls for, and then put it on the table.
Since I used a deep skillet, I was able to place all the chicken in the pan without having to use a dutch oven. Cover and let cook until the rice is done – about 20 – 30 minutes. To finish I added some beer I had in the fridge. I then placed the garnish of fresh asparagus, thawed peas and fire-roasted red pepper. And voila dinner is served.
Sitting on the bus in my decaffeinated and hungry state – bleary eyed, a mild headache, and a low grumble in my stomach – I tried to absorb the scenery. We rolled through a rural landscape of fields of grass bordered with wooden fencing and second growth forest, a jumble of tropical plants in slightly different shades of green, palms, vines and a coniferous tree or two. There were no directional signs for miles and no street signs at intersections. The Cuban government did provide motivational signs in the form of large billboards with pro-revolution slogans painted with vibrant colors. The road was boring and the only thing keeping me conscious on this tourist class, Greyhound bus look-alike, was the smell of old, dried up urine from the latrine at the back of the bus, a Cuban Dirty Dog.
Did you get the analogy?
In a writing workshop, located in Seattle WA, my classmates didn’t get it. They thought there was an actual dog on the bus, or that the smell reminded the narrator of an experience with a Cuban dog. Lost in analogy was the slang term for Greyhound buses used in my hometown of Chicago IL.
With analogy being so important to storytelling, to bring the reader closer to the story, what happens if the analogy isn’t universal?
It is like being told a joke and needing it explained to you. The joke is lost, poof – lost in translation.
What is a writer to do?
My goal as a writer of memoir and creative nonfiction is to share my story. My words will reflect my experiences, my slang, bits of my personality, but what if you the reader doesn’t get my drift and get’s lost? My goal of sharing my story is lost, as the reader is adrift in an ocean of confusion. Wondering, huh?! I don’t get it…
I don’t have the answer, for now I dropped the analogy to the Cuban dirty dog. In a different paragraph I call it a porta-potty on wheels (changed from my original Honey Bucket on wheels – the name of our local portable toilet provider in Seattle) so that more people in the U.S. would understand the reference. Or should I call it a porta-John or porta-WC… Ugh!
My height is an aspect about my physical appearance that I just can’t hide.
I really can’t hide.
Not in a crowd, not in the subway, or the supermarket, nope I stick out. The only place I have traveled where I felt short was in the Netherlands. Everyone there, women included, were tall! Even the friend I was with made a comment about how I had “found my tribe.” The only problem was they were all blond haired and blue eyed and spoke a language I don’t think I could ever understand. They were not my tribe.
The places I have visited where I feel most tribal, like Peru, Bolivia, Cuba or Mexico, I don’t look like them. My 6-foot, olive skin, light brown hair and eyes, just don’t allow me to fit in. The looks I got when I spoke Spanish in those countries were ones of confusion and disbelief. “Where did you learn to speak Spanish with an accent?” They would ask. Even when I explained my colorful heritage – Mom is Cuban, Dad is German, grew up in Chicago – they would answer – “Ah, es Alemana.” Oh, you are German… Problem solved, at least for them.
My senior year of high school, I thought I finally had my chance at being part of a tribe. My school was finally getting a girl’s basketball team. It was 1987. What other place than on the basketball court with other tall girls, would I feel most at home, most normal?
I was tall, I was a quick learner, my hand-eye coordination wasn’t so good, but I learned how to dribble and run at the same time. Basketball workouts did wonders for my physique – I think that was when I finally burned off all of that pudgy stuff called “baby fat.” I became a tall, lean, basketball machine.
I played Center. Which is sort of a cliche, but I was the tallest on the team. Although it was always a source of contention for the second tallest girl, whose perm made it look like she was taller at times. I had a mean rebound, which made up for my failures at doing lay up shots. Why I couldn’t hit the little square with the ball, at the right angle, with the right force, to then make a basket still perplexes me… I think the analytical part of my brain wanted to know the equation or law of physics or geometry behind the theory of lay up shots – then I may have been able to “get it.”
There was a level of respect between teammates. We played well together and we didn’t fight each other, but we were not best friends and we never hung out after practice.
This didn’t decrease my desire to be their friend or to hang out. It’s just that even though we were the tall and athletic girls of our school – we still had differences that were hard to overcome. We lived in different neighborhoods, we had different socioeconomic backgrounds, none of us went to the same grammar school (which mattered for some reason) and I was in all AP classes.
I was learning a lesson that season of basketball. I was learning that the idea of a tribe of similar people is a farce. A farce that I feel many people aspire towards – that fantasy-land of similar looking and like-minded people. What I gained and cherish to this day, is the ability to look at someone and see myself in them. A person searching for their tribe, when their tribe is all around them waiting to be acknowledged.
What does the shutdown of the U.S. government mean to you?
I’m directly impacted. My day job is gone, yes temporarily, but I sort of like serving my country and ensuring sustainable U.S. seafood – jobs, food, money, communities, environment all impacted by the harvesting of fish. OK, and I really like getting a paycheck.
We have important research being cancelled or postponed.
We have a fatal crash in Tennessee not being investigated.
Impending damage from hurricane Karen won’t be compensated.
What about that unconscious or conscious side effect of having elected officials acting like bullies on a playground?
Or the effect of having an employee not do the job they were hired to do? Like someone at McDonalds not serving hamburgers because they don’t want to or because they are vegetarian – fully knowing that it was the job they were hired to do.
Yes it is that simple. The NUMBER ONE, NUMERO UNO, job of members of the U.S. Congress is to PASS A BUDGET!!!
Nevermind, they haven’t passed one in years and government agencies with important missions – missions that are at the core value systems of all Americans – have been working with skeleton crews and a pittance for budgets.
I do not like where we are right now. All because there are still people in this country that want to be the OTHER or are afraid of the OTHER…
You know what I’m talking about – it is hardwired in all of us. That need to compartmentalize other people to help you develop your sense of identity. To identify with something, someplace, someone – to justify your existence. The ammo necessary to hate someone, something, someplace, when you don’t know them, never have seen the thing or never visited the place.
On the innocent side of the spectrum of “otherism” is what makes a football game exciting – Beat the visiting team! Hoorah!
But this is also what makes walking down the street at night dangerous – they are from the other team – jump them. Or in this case it makes white, evangelical, southerners, right-wingers – afraid to be in the same line as poor people of color from different religions, states and from the left-wing when going for health care.
It has been said that these prejudices, this otherism, is unconscious, hard to get to and hard to change.
I say BULLSHIT to that. Enough excuses. Open your eyes to your own prejudices, your own otherisms. Pay attention to your heart rate or blood pressure when you see someone you may have ideological, morphological, phenotypical, or geographical differences.
I think I am a nice person but it chaps my hide that I am pre-judged by people when I enter a room. I can see it in their eyes, I can see their unconscious neurons firing those habitual prejudices across their brain. It is rare when I see someone consciously halting that habit – changing their default behavior – to greet me as a human – an equal – a sister, with respect.
If you do it for me, I promise I’ll do it for you. And if I don’t, cuz I’m tired and/or hungry, let’s talk about it, like adults, let’s agree to disagree on some things, but let’s focus on those things we share.
But don’t take my government and my livelihood hostage just because you can’t get over seeing others as equals.
I sit in the grandstand with three layers of clothing on: thermal base layer, sweater, rain coat, under cool misting clouds in the center of Scotland. In front of me are massive brutes in kilts throwing large rocks (stone) or attempting to toss a branchless tree trunk (caber) end over end, bag pipe bands squeal unfamiliar tunes and petite girls in multi-colored tartans of purple, turquoise, red, blue or purple, prance and bounce over swords.
The mass of humanity around me pretend we are watching these simultaneously occurring events for hours, when in reality we await Her Majesty’s entrance.
I instinctively stand when her car enters the arena. I look around and no one else reciprocates my action. Even when she exits her vehicle, I see no one stand. How strange I thought. Shouldn’t we be paying our respect to her royal heritage as we stand in one of her sovereign nations? I felt odd sitting while a person of such influence stands a few hundred yards away.
Moments go by until finally an announcer beckons everyone to stand to sing the British anthem – God Save our Queen. I’m beside myself with giddyness as the music begins to play and I involuntarily sing the lyrics to My Country tis of Thee. Oops, is it disrespectful to sing the former anthem of a nation that is a former British republic in front of the Queen herself? The significance or awkwardness of this moment, which I’m sure many citizens of the U.S. have found themselves, did not escape me. It offered me the opportunity to think about the difference in the lyrics being sung to the same melody. One song asks “God Save the Queen,” while the other asks “Let Freedom Ring.” For a lovely version sung at Obama’s second inauguration, check out this YouTube video.
What does it mean to you?
It’s meaning is summed up by the comment of the host of the guest house I stayed in while attending the gathering. He said “I love talking to Americans!” Why? I asked. “Because you have such a positive outlook on things and such broad perspectives on life.”
I was taken by his comment, thinking to myself, YES of course we have freedom of speech, we have the freedom to aspire to build from what our parents gave us, the freedom to be whomever we want to be, the freedom to tell our government what changes our country needs. BUT, of course there is bad that comes with the good…
Let’s focus on the good.
As a child I loved to sing My Country Tis of Thee – the tune was catchy and the lyrics easy to remember. My Country Tis of Thee – you are my country of birth – Sweet Land of Liberty – YES, I love my liberty – Of Thee I Sing – because I love my liberty – Land where our Fathers died – wait a minute, my fathers haven’t died here…they died at Normandy, in Germany, Spain and Cuba – Land of the Pilgrims Pride – what is that? Are my parents pilgrims? – From Every Mountainside – Those mountains I saw during our summer car camping trips were awe-inspiring to this city girl – Let Freedom Ring – Yes let it ring, let it ring, let it ring!
The U.S.A is a destination for those fleeing oppression. Some flee voluntarily, like my father who fled economic oppression in a Germany still suffering the after effects of WWII, while others are forced, like my mother’s family who fled the political oppression of Castro’s revolution and potential death. To them the U.S.A provided a freedom they didn’t have in their country of birth.
Too many of us have taken this freedom for granted. Found in the growing apathy towards the vision of our founding fathers.
Too many of us have looked upon other immigrants as enemies instead of fellow freedom lovers.
All of us too easily forget why our ancestors came to this land and helped create the country we now live and call home.
All of us too easily forget that the civil rights and human rights of all of our fellow Americans should be respected regardless of how they arrived here – over the Bering Straits or on slave ships.
We too easily forget that we all strive for the same thing – freedom.
Maybe we should start focusing our consciousness on those things that unite us, rather than focus on those things that reflect our differences.
Until then, we will not have the freedom we so desire.