I grew up in a thoroughly assimilated American household. I didn’t know that I was different until some kids bullied me in Elementary School, taunting “Ah so, Mena!” It was very confusing to me. Was I Chinese? No, my mother assured me, I was Puerto Rican. What was that, exactly?
I knew that my mother spoke to her mother in Spanish, and that I had spent my fifth birthday in Santurce, staying with my mother’s Aunt Ven and visiting my Aunt Alice, a Dominican nun who was assigned to a convent in San Juan. All of my mother’s siblings spoke to their mother in Spanish, while my father, whose parents were both born in Puerto Rico, never spoke Spanish. I’d say that this was confusing to me, but in reality I was perfectly comfortable being a suburban white boy whose life’s soundtrack occasionally included Spanish. And since this soundtrack didn’t include subtitles, I didn’t learn the language until I became an adult.
In the meantime, there were holiday visits to my grandmother and grandfather’s apartments in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. There was Mother’s Day with my Grandma Felicita, and Father’s Day at Grandpa’s house, but the real treat was at Christmas time, when we visited both homes on the same day. I couldn’t care less about the turtleneck sweaters I would inevitably receive as gifts. The true star of the day was the Puerto Rican pastele.
Always a good eater, I feasted upon pasteles with great zeal. My mother, half Puerto Rican but not a gifted cook, never made them at home, so I only ate them when I visited my grandparents. They passed away in the late 70s and early 80s, and I haven’t had a pastele since then.
Being a thoroughly assimilated American adult, and married to a very gifted cook, I enjoy the food of many cultures, but I long for a Christmas beneath the flamboyan tree, breathing in the fragance and relishing every bite of a homemade pastele.