We were making copies using the ditto machine in the teacher’s resource room of our school.
When the teacher’s aide – we kids called “slap jaw” – walked through the intoxicating fumes of the duplicating solvent to talk to us.
She asked us where we were going to high school – we both replied Sullivan. She pulled out her copy of the Gale Echo – our school’s yearly black and white booklet and opened it to the centerfold exposing the pictures of the graduating 8th graders.
Slap jaw thrust the paper and a pen towards me and asked me to autograph my light-greyish picture, saying I would be famous one day.
You were standing next to me, my sister, my desk mate in our “gifted” class, my friend for as long I could remember, our fate sealed by our shared initials R-F-R, your dark-greyish picture next to mine.
I remember looking at her, looking at you, then looking at her again. Perhaps I had a stupid smile on my face, thinking she just forgot, a simple oversight, she was an old white woman.
I remember that pause – that moment it took slap jaw to realize she should ask for your autograph too, but it was too late. She exposed our differences.
Freshman year of high school, I was labeled white for the first time. I’m not white. I’m a child of immigrants.
I played basketball in high school.
We played all-white suburban schools outside Chicago. We played all-black south and west side schools in Chicago.
To some, I looked more like suburban white than south side black.
When I fell in love with a black man from the west side, he told me I wouldn’t be accepted by his people. To his family, friends, and neighbors, I was white.
I remember feeling my love is no different.
In high school, I labeled myself a half-breed – something I heard or read someone call a Native American whose parents weren’t both Native.
But was I a half-breed German or a half-breed Cuban? What half of what breed would I be?
30 years later I received my AncestryDNA® results. I remember looking at the colored blobs over parts of the globe where my people came from.
The European continent was aglow in a rainbow of blobs.
90% of my DNA is European Mutt, my ancestors traversed the lands from Spain east towards Poland, from Scandinavia, south to Italy and Greece.
The other 10% comes from the continents of North and South America, Africa, and West Asia (the middle east).
The complicated mess of my DNA is a result of wars, colonization, slavery, revolutions, migration, immigration and everything in between.
My DNA unites, rather than divides.
I may not look like you. Our phenotypes make us look different to each other. But when we look inside we will find our similarities.
Today I give thanks to this happy couple. My parents – circa 1969 at Banff or Glacier NP. They represent what the United States of America is all about.
A country of compassion.
A country of opportunity.
A country where an economic refugee from Germany and a political refugee from Cuba, could meet, fall in love, get married, and carve out a life and raise a family.
All of that happened in a little neighborhood on the far north side of Chicago called Rogers Park.
They embodied the American Dream.
My dad, a craftsman, opened a business with his brother and my mother went to school to become a registered nurse. It took them a little over 20 years to buy a house, which by that time my brother and I were in college.
But it wasn’t all peaches and cream – if I may use that cliché.
My little nuclear family was a place where two very different cultures collided.
Yes, collided. No melting happened in the pot of my family. Although, you could argue German and Cuban DNA did blend to create my brother and me. But that is another story…
From our little experiment – I am authorized to say the American melting pot is a farce, a fantasy, a disillusioned idea.
What does it mean to melt cultures together?
What does it mean to have no diversity?
What does it mean to have no differing opinions or perspectives?
What if there was only one color in a rainbow? Blue bow? Red bow? Purple bow?
Take a walk in the woods, snorkel around a coral reef, canoe along a river through a rain forest.
In nature there is only diversity. An ecosystem is made up of diverse creatures. From microscopic plankton to huge whales. Life on Earth thrives on biological diversity. Any time one organism takes over a habitat – the ecosystem becomes imbalanced. Disease, mass die-offs, decreased food sources.
Dad never learned how to dance the Cuban son – mom never learned to polka. Neither learned the other’s language. A version of English is what we spoke in our household (although I always say English is my second language).
Dad thought my Cuban family yelled too much. And Mom thought my German family didn’t like her because she was a “darkie.”
For better and worse, my parents stayed together until my Dad’s death in 2013. Despite their outer dysfunction – the communication challenges, the short bouts of yelling, followed by years of silence – deep down inside, they loved each other.
As I approach my late 40s, I have finally realized what my parents gave me.
Cultural sensitivity, an ability to be patient with and understand people with accents, a mysterious morphological make up that allows me access into a diversity of groups, and the consciousness to see the humanity shared by all of us.
So I give thanks for them and for this country that made it all happen.
This week began with my hand banged up and my finger throbbing from having a splinter. Not the greatest start of a week.
I haven’t blogged because there are days I just don’t have the time nor the story.
Today was going to be another storyless day. I spent 11 hours in downtown Honolulu in a meeting. Came home and was invited by my neighbor’s for dinner (Alaska salmon!). When I returned to my studio the air conditioner blew a circuit breaker (again).
But the story came when I opened a bulging package and out came oodles of love from my niece, nephew, and their parents!📦
A lovely letter from my niece – who asked me to write her notes so we could be writing buddies (!), and so she could practice her spelling. 💌
I received “Holoween” goodies, even though she wasn’t sure if they celebrate Halloween in “hawie.”
The care package was perfect because I have felt weird about buying Halloween stuff in Hawaii.
I don’t have a door to welcome trick or treaters and I am fairly positive I won’t be getting dressed up in a costume. The little bit of October love from this package is sufficient for me. 🎃
Especially, my new artwork drawn by my sweet, multitalented niece.
On December 17th, 2014, I was on a cruise ship, sailing to within four miles of the coast of Cuba.
I was on a cruise with my mother, my husband and best friend from high school. We just left the Bahamas and were on our way to Ocho Rios Jamaica. I knew the ship would have to travel through the Windward Passage between Cuba and Haiti to reach Jamaica directly south of Cuba, but I didn’t know how close.
After lunch, while walking laps on the Promenade deck, I thought I saw land. I went to my stateroom to find our latest location, we were close to the Eastern-most tip of Cuba, PuntaMaisí.
I was familiar with Punta Maisí because it was a place my mother wanted to visit during our trip to Cuba in 2010. Instead we stayed in Baracoa, about 39 miles away. We learned the roads out to the point were really muddy and with potholes large enough to wreck the already battered Lada sedan of our hired driver.
Perhaps now, while cruising along her shores aboard the luxurious MS NOORDAM, we would be able to see the famous lighthouse at Punta Maisí. Her decks providing us with a sturdy platform to view what we couldn’t get to on land.
I spent the day on deck squinting my eyes to see if I could see something I could recognize, I was hoping to see El Yunque – the famous geologic feature in Baracoa that purportedly led Columbus to Cuba’s shores in 1511. Clouds draped the coastline. I imagined I saw the silhouette of mountains.
The winter sun was low on the horizon, the fluffy tropical white clouds played tricks with my eyes, but finally as if commanded by my desire to see land, a slight wind picked up and – Land Ho!
My heart filled with pride of seeing my mother’s land, my eyes welled with tears, as if I was seeing a long dead relative, coming back for a brief visit. Cuba!
I continued my laps around the Promenade deck as our ship sailed even closer to Cuba’s shores. Each trip I announced to a clueless, yet curious, fellow passenger who was wondering what land we were passing. “That my friend is the most beautiful island in the world! Cuba!” I was proud of my ancestor’s land, despite her political history, it is a place of amazing natural history and made up of a resilient people.
The land came closer into view and upon checking our location again, about an hour later, I saw we were only miles off her coast, precisely off Punta Maisí. I squinted some more and thought I saw a lighthouse. I used my Iphone 4s camera to zoom in and steadied my arms on the deck railing. I needed another miracle from the clouds and the wind. My eyes played tricks on me, I thought I could see a small white blip in the distance. I took several images, not really knowing what I was taking a photo of. But on some level, I knew it had to be the lighthouse at Maisí.
When I got home after the cruise, I looked at all my photos and did a few searches on Google to determine that yes what I saw was Punta Maisí.
We continued to cruise past Cuba until nightfall. When lights onshore, made me wonder, again, where we were. I wondered if we were near Santiago de Cuba. I thought the lights I saw were from El Morro, the Spanish fort at the mouth of Santiago harbor. But when I looked at our location on the ship’s monitor, we were to the east.
I went back on deck and watched the blinking lights of what I thought would have been the runway at Santiago’s airport, the airport my mother and I flew into back in 2010, an airport slightly east of El Morro. My mind was made up, that was Santiago. Then, I saw more flashing lights, to the west of the “runway” past a dark area. I didn’t remember anything on the other side of Santiago’s harbor mouth. Then it came to me. That must be the mouth of Guantanamo Bay and the lights are from the U.S. naval base. I stood there staring into the darkness, imagining the large natural harbor of that bay, thinking about how one of my great-uncles was killed while trying to swim towards freedom and remembering my visit to the town of Guantanamo, in 2010, the place where my mother was born. Then, I had a vision.
“I can imagine our cruise ship sailing into port here.” I blurted to my husband, stunned by the break in silence.
I learned the next day, December 18th, that my vision may one day be a reality, Obama had announced his plans to reestablish relations with Cuba. A future cruise originating in the U.S., could possibly include Cuba on its itinerary. It will be a fabulous economic opportunity for the people of Cuba and an opportunity for cultural exchange for both Cubans and Americans.
Note: After several months of reading a bunch of articles about travel to Cuba, I read about an entrepreneur from Canada who has already established a cruise around Cuba. Wanna go?!
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.