No “Otherness” Allowed

I recall with shame squandering the better part of my youth learning how to shed my Cuban coat to conceal my otherness. I knew I couldn’t change my olive complexion or hide my high check bones, pronounced jaw line, large dark eyes, and wavy, black hair that outed me as some kind of exotic Spanish gypsy amid the blue-eyed, pink-skinned Americanos.

Instead I practiced my English every day after school for hours in front of a mirror in a slow and laborious effort to get rid of my accent. My accent was to blame. It made anyone who heard me speak dismiss me as a dumb, lazy immigrant who hadn’t even made an effort to learn the language of the country that had granted her asylum. I learned very quickly that having a foreign accent was the equivalent of being invisible. No one listened. No one cared what I had to say. They pretended I wasn’t there, which in many ways meant that I wasn’t.

Everything around me pointed to the fact that changing my speech patterns was step one in the critical process of assimilation for foreigners—it goes without saying that as an outsider, if you don’t speak the language you might as well not exist.

There were endless weekends spent glued to the tube mimicking reruns of The Young and the Restless. The gringa actresses in Hollywood soap operas all had the gentle and non-ethnic demeanor I was determined to assume to become a proper Americanita. So, with a heavy heart, I abandoned my favorite Mexican telenovelas. If I was going to make it in the US of A, I had to say goodbye to the likes of Corazon Salvaje, Los Ricos Tambien Lloran, Tú o Nadie, De Pura Sangre, y El Derecho de Nacer. I didn’t have a favorite. I loved them all, and was a sucker for any featuring the queen of telenovelas, Veronica Castro. But, I drew a line and refused to give up my episodes of ¡Qué Pasa USA!

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Me & My Cuban Dilemma

Every once in a while, but especially during Hispanic Heritage Month, I connect with other Cuban-American peeps on social media venues. And at first it feels great. I’m filled with a sense of community. But then, days later, when my mind is unoccupied and trails off into the subconscious, I start to think something’s off. Why was I doing this only during Hispanic month? Am I not Cuban 365 days a year? So, why wait for some arbitrary calendar date to act on my hispanidad or Cubanidad?

Still, we got to talking about many Latinx topics affecting our people in the current political climate – from children in cages to colorism within our own homes & communities- and I got to thinking…

Am I Cuban enough? Should I wave the metaphorical flag of my people more? Should I be louder?

Am I too Americanized? Too assimilated to remember the pure joy of a strong cafecito, the addictive sweetness of pastelistos de guayava, or a Noche Buena feast and its Cuban staples?

And, if I don’t dance salsa anymore, am I Cuban enough? If I don’t speak Spanish regularly (except for the time  with my mom), am I Cuban enough? If I don’t cook our Cuban food, and instead make chicken Parmesan, am I Cuban enough?

If I don’t pass down my Cuban-ness to my kids, if they  don’t salsa or speak Spanish or know their heritage, how do I call myself a real Cuban?

At first, I thought myself open-minded, allowing my kids to make their own traditions; likes and dislikes. But, in doing so, have I stripped them of their heritage? Their sense of place in the world? Their roots? Granted, my kiddos are mixed babies (their papa is a black man from Philly) so they share another history too; one he hasn’t foist upon them either.

Don’t get me wrong, my children know they are half Cuban and half black, but as cultural traditions go, they know very little about what it’s like to be either. only in recent memory, now that they are in their early twenties and starting to engage with the current political, environmental and socio-climate around them, have they started asking questions and become more curious about their origins.

Have I shed too much of what  defines me? That which defines my family? My children? As a Cuban, born on the island and raised in Miami (who has lived all over, from Connecticut and NYC to Hawaii) , I sometimes feel I am very far from what I was supposed to be. So far from the world I was born into. As I continue this identity quest, I will explore these and many other deeply personal questions. It is time I had the testicular courage to embarked on this difficult journey of self discovery and figure out how Cuban I really am? Or at the very least, how Cuban I am comfortable being. (TO BE CONT.)

A Short Story of Racism & Appropriation

CELEBRATING CINCO DE WHAT?

I ducked under a low-hanging paper banner strung across the entrance of Lou’s Bar & Grill. Dangling rows of the same paper banner hung from every wall inside the place. Black flag cutouts displaying skulls and skeletal faces painted in neon white. A bigger banner of dead bones lit up the length of the bar where my co-workers were celebrating.

I was late. Sarah was going to kill me. She did not like being left alone with the guys for so long. We were the only two girls in our social group, which she didn’t mind, unless I was late, and I was super late.

As I got closer, and hoped she’d had enough to drink to nullify her anger. I didn’t have an excused for why I wasn’t on time. I could try telling her the truth, but I was 100% positive no one in our group, not even Sarah, would understand why celebrating Cinco de Mayo wasn’t foremost on my mind given the week’s headlines.

“Look who decided to show up?” Sarah acknowledged my tardiness but was not angry.

“Sorry.” I said. “Hey, guys.” I took the stool next to Sarah at the round bar top table.

Jack and Mike greeted me, but I couldn’t hear a single word over the loud music pouring out of the speakers. Though no one said it, I guessed Steve was in the bathroom.

“I gotta learn how to dance that salsa, man. Seriously.” A fairly drunk Jack tapped Mike on the shoulder before holding his hands up in a dancing position and shaking his torso so hard he almost knocked himself off the stool.

“It’s actually bachata.” I tried to correct him but no one was listening. “Not salsa.”

“Whaaaat?” Sarah lifted her hand to her ear and leaned closer to me.

“Bachata. It’s called bachata.”

“Huhhh?”

“I said it’s bachata,” I repeated, leaning closer to her. “It’s not even Mexican.” I tried to educate. “It’s from the Dominican…never mind.” I stopped when she stopped listening.

Sarah shouted at Mike and waved her hands in circles gesturing for him to order another round of ginormous drink bowls from the waiter who hurried past our table. “We need mucho mas Strawberry Margarita Bowls, señor! Cinco! Cinco bowls!”

How drunk was Sarah?

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The Secret of Lizard Pie

I avoid Tía Alba’s awkward conversation about colonizers and inquire about the strange pie instead. “What kind of pie is that?”

“Smells good, right?” She smiles, confident the answer to her question is a resounding yes. “Tell you what, I’ll keep your secret if you keep mine.”

I’m positive I’ve spilled no secrets, but Tía Alba seems convinced I’m hiding something. And she’s not wrong. “Okay, so what kind of pie is it?”

“I understand all about secrets.” She ignores my question. “You don’t get to live out here all your life without knowing how to take a secret or two to your grave. Besides, you’ll soon hear I’m known as the Queen of Lizard Pie.”

I’m not sure what she means but I pretend to follow along.

“Do you like Lizard Pie?” She turns to reach for something, then turns back to me with a perfectly round piece of pie served on a perfectly large porcelain plate in her large hand. She sets it in front of me, rests both hands on her wide hips and demands. “What are you waiting for. Dig in!”

“Did you say Lizard Pie?” The freshly baked pie looks even more amazing up close, with the most golden crust I’ve ever seen and steam escaping between the spaces of the flaky but tightly knit pastry latticework.

The entire café, like at Big Betty’s, is filled with the aroma of minced meat with a sofrito of yellow onions, cumin, achiote, paprika, salsa de tomate, Pasilla peppers, plums and carrots, all sizzling and dancing around a hot pan until its nutty, spicy, and sweet scents like molasses, hypnotize every hungry customer in the place.

“Well?” She asked impatiently before I have time to pick up a fork and test her lizard meat concoction. Sensing my confusion, she decides to help my curiosity along. “Why don’t you just ask me what you really wanna ask me? The obvious question.” She winks, handing me a spoon.

The obvious question? I don’t even know where to start. What is lizard meat? Why would you put it in a pie? Why add it to a menu? Do you not like your customers? All great questions just not sure which she’d considered the obvious one.

Tía Alba finally breaks through the silence. “It’s okay. I get why people wanna know if there’s actual lizard in my famous Lizard Pie.” She laughs.

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Marisol & Mauricio: Once an Egg Slut…

Marisol and Mauricio Montenegro finally entered familiar territory. Of all the things amiss between them, the love of food was not one of them. During their separation, Mauricio had become an even better chef than he had been. He was a foodie before moving into their loft but had learned so much from the farm-to-table movement that had taken L.A.’s downtown culinary scene by storm. 

Mauricio always made mental notes during the couple’s many fine dining experiences and reimagined the recipes at home for an enthusiastic Mari—none more memorable than the Egg Slut meal at Grand Central Market. Mauricio knew his Marisol was a sucker for anything eggy—the runnier the better.

The first course was placed in front of the diners, but for Mauricio the room disappeared and there was only Marisol, “Holy-Incredible-Dish-Batman!” He turned to his wife.

Marisol had not heard her husband’s favorite expression in weeks and didn’t expect something that trivial to make her explode with emotion. To her surprise, Mari was thankful for the random seating arrangement that had landed her next to her husband. She was happy not to have to vie for her husband’s attention all night the way she had over a brunch full of unapologetic desperate housewives. So Marisol was able to smile a big wide smile—a comfort smile, a familiar smile—and she agreed with Mauricio. The first course was delicious. “Wow, twice-baked bone marrow with caramelized shallots, capers and parsley in a lemon-olive oil reduction topped with a perfectly poached egg. They got your number, you egg slut!”

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Hungry

When Samantha returned from her morning’s adventures, she found their love nest bursting with salsa music. Hubby, Alejandro, stood tall over the kitchen island with his hands inside a silver, mixing bowl. He tossed diced tomatoes, chopped garlic, and minced basil leaves in a bath of virgin olive oil to the rhythms of Oscar De León. He would later top the garlic-y mixture off with a pinch of salt and four twists of his pepper mill. Alejandro engaged in the serious business of making his wife a satisfying lunch—a task he never took lightly. 

When he was in the kitchen, which was often, Alejandro worked with such intensity that a stranger might mistake his passion for anger. But friends and family knew that the extreme focus and crinkled brow was Alejandro’s look of concentration and there was no place he concentrated more than in the kitchen. 

“You hungry yet? I’ll have some bruschetta ready for you in just a minute,” Alejandro bounced around from one corner of the kitchen to the other—one second in the fridge for a lemon, the next back in the oven checking that the broiler toasted the edges of the baguette slices just right, all while sipping from his glass of Cabernet.

Samantha sat at the island and placed the canvas bag on an adjacent stool, “It smells really good,” she responded, tapped the jellybeans and Magic 8-Ball inside the bag and thought, later. She wanted to enjoy Alejandro performing one of her favorite activities, so she poured herself a bit of the Cabernet and sat front row to take in the show. When Alejandro cooked Sam forgot everything—especially her frustrations.

He zipped more of his wine from the stovetop where he stirred the creamy black peppercorn sauce for his Steak au Poivre then it was back to the oven to check on the baguettes. The edges were browned enough to his liking. With a professional flick of the wrist, he took the kitchen towel off his shoulder and dove in after the baking sheet, “Almost,” he assured her.

Like all proper chefs, Alejandro owned an exhausted collection of kitchen towels. At least a dozen at any given time, with half a dozen in active use. The main dry towel always hung steady on his shoulder in case there was wiping to be done, drying of the hands or need for an emergency potholder. That one was changed out daily to be rinsed then thrown back into the rotation. His bleach towel kept his station clean. He could usually get fourteen good wipes out of it with a clean side. The hot-handle towel lived wrapped around his tongs and kept on a stainless spoon rest when it wasn’t in his left hand. There was a time when all Alejandro got for Christmas were bouquets of kitchen towels.

“Okay, tell me what you think,” Alejandro turned around and gave Sam a square plate with six bruschetta slices overflowing with goodness. He picked up what he considered to be the most perfect of all the bites, lifted it to her lips and waited patiently until Samantha parted her lips, opened her mouth wide, and bit down into the Italian flavors.

“Wow,” Sam mumbled through her first bite. She loved the earthiness of the basil, the sweetness of the tomatoes and the smooth tones of olive oil. Sam loved the sharp garlic and the salty kick of the prosciutto even more. “Wow,” she repeated with a smile.

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A Dangerous Dinner Party

Carmen Cabrera pressed a freshly manicured finger against the penthouse doorbell. She turned to adjust her hubby, Adriano’s dinner jacket, when Cassandra, the evening’s host and stunning beauty from their earlier elevator encounter, answered. Carmen saw her appear the way the wealthy did in those period movies where the grande dame makes a breathtaking entrance.

As Cassandra threw open the double doors, Carmen and hubby were greeted with a smile, broader, more honest, and more welcoming than either of them expected. 

Carmen hated and loved how effortless Cassandra’s golden curls ran past her shoulders. How her youthful bangs framed the softness of her round, vibrant face. Carmen also couldn’t help notice Cassandra’s subtle makeup scheme—a touch of shimmering peach gloss across a pair of full lips and a thick smattering of mascara that accentuated a pair of already seductive lashes. It was just what Carmen needed: a night full of women batting sexy lashes at her man to diminish her own makeover efforts.

Before crossing the threshold through the penthouse doors, everything in Carmen’s body warned her. The sweaty palms. The clenched teeth. The heavy boulder-like sense in her gut. The nausea. All tell-tale signs she should run, not walk, as fast as possible away from this dinner party.

But Carmen ignored her gut and entered the Cassandra Crawford headquarters in the name of new beginnings. Act Two here we go!

Despite Carmen’s own transformative makeover, Adriano couldn’t stop staring at Cassandra’s short black cocktail dress. The way it hugged the contours of her curvy shape. It covered her arms with three-quarter length sleeves for added elegance, but the plunging V-neck showcased the entirety of her cleavage. Adriano and Carmen tried not to stare at a pair of plump boobs but failed. The short designer dress also revealed a pair of long legs on an eight-hundred-dollar pair of Yves Saint Laurent ankle strap sandals, featuring black suede and gold metallic trim. Adriano was afraid that Carmen had been right: this couple was “dangerously gorgeous.” 

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Because One Cupcake Is Never Enough

AN EXCERPT FROM MY 3rd NOVEL: ONCE UPON A CUPCAKE SHOP

Available through: https://amzn.to/2O0b96E

THAT NIGHT, after showering in the old, upstairs apartment, Eva felt the lingering romance of the farmer’s market adventure. She couldn’t stop thinking about him. Who knew she’d ever have a him to think of again. She couldn’t stop humming her favorite song in the rundown kitchen of her new shop. The lyrics of Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville rattled around in her head as she unpacked ingredients and baker’s tools, staging them across the stainless-steel counter. She was ready to try the  riskiest of recipes. One only her grandma was known to pull off successfully, the Dark Chocolate Orange Cupcake.

Eva unearthed the chocolate mousse she’d left in the fridge to set overnight, and was set to start on the next step, when Leandro came from the upstairs bathroom where he’d taken Eva up on a quick rinse after a sweaty, hot day at the market.

“What’s this?” Leandro ask about the brown mixture in a scuffed white enamel bowl covered in clear wrap.

“Mousse I made for the icing.” Eva got nervous. The words from the lady at the market played back in her mind like an audiobook of a romance novel on repeat. I can tell you guys speak the same language, the observant woman had pointed out as they stood at her tent completing each other’s sentences. Continue reading “Because One Cupcake Is Never Enough”