“What are you?” someone would ask curiously.
“A plantain.” I would reply.
I’ve compiled a list of smart responses to that dumb question that I’m just waiting to use. I don’t always say plantain. Some days I say “human”, others I say “female”, but more often than not I say the last thing I ate because you are what you eat – right? I know what they want me to say, but I don’t give it to them. The thought of having to characterize myself as something other than a person before even introducing my name always annoys the heck out of me. There is an ongoing obsession in America with grouping each other in certain categories that most of the time are not accurately presented.
The kickstarter for me was in grade school during a conversation about tacos. Tacos and social identity – the perfect duo. I would get questions about Cinco De Mayo and how my family made tacos to celebrate, even my teachers would ask. Much to their surprise I am not Mexican. I do not celebrate Cinco De Mayo and I don’t even speak spanish. They couldn’t believe that someone with the last name Lopez wasn’t familiar with their idea of “Spanish culture”.
However, at home without question I am Puerto Rican. As a first generation American or Puerto Rican American, (or whatever you want to call it) my responsibility is to preserve my heritage. My “Ma” made it her mission in life to make sure I never forgot my roots. Through cooking she kept the traditions from our motherland alive. The food, the flavors, and the ingredients all reminded me of who I was. The clanking of my Ma’s pilon (mortar and pestle) mashing the ripe plantains as she moved to salsa music was more than just preparation for a home cooked meal – it was the perpetuation of my ancestors practice. Just like the DNA of Puerto Rico, she would pour on a blend of Spanish, African American, and Taino Indian spices to coat the plantains. My love for food began because of my Ma’s cooking – she cooked from the heart. She was well aware of how I suck and still do at cooking, so she would assign me seemingly easy tasks in the kitchen. Most of the time I would sit on the counter and “help cook” by picking the freshly washed cilantro off the stem alternating between slipping one in my mouth and one in the bowl. Other times I would mince the garlic into oblong shapes letting the smell soak into the pores of my finger tips.
My Ma would tell stories about Puerto Rico as she cooked my brothers and I dinner. Her favorite story was about how my brothers use to catch little lizards and let them bite their ears so they looked like earrings. The metal pot she used had burnt outlines of where rice once laid but she refused to buy a new once since it was passed down from my Abuela. Understanding my identity was the most important thing to her. She always made sure I knew exactly where I came from and never let me forget it. My Ma would always laugh and declare how proud she is to be a Latina, especially when she was feeding me. Her pride was contagious.
Whenever I am asked the question of “what am I?”, I try to think back to those moments at home or at school to remember what exactly it means to be Latina. Being able to hold onto Puerto Rican cuisine is more than just something to eat, it’s the validation of a sense of self. Connecting through food is the easiest and the closet way I can discover my identity. Although out in the world, misunderstanding of my culture is easy, I will always be able to tap into the heart of it and that’s because of my Ma’s food.