Summers in Progreso are hot, blistering months. Pregnant with desperation, they swell during the beginning weeks, then ooze and burst at the season’s end.
It was raining when we returned to Honduras five months later that year to bury my grandmother. Our arrival that afternoon was greeted by a torrential downpour that tore the vast Honduran sky wide open the moment the tiny, weathered aircraft landed and pulled onto the country’s oldest commercial runway. The force and weight between the heavy gusts of wind, sheets of rain, and solid amber earth struck upon could cause old roadblocks to uproot from their cement cradles, and lay palm open, exposed like old wounds.
When we stepped out of the taxicab in front of our grandfather’s house, townspeople everywhere seemed to suspend action and movement midair. The tortilleras stopped patting between their hands the warm tortillas that would serve as accompaniments to afternoon lunches. The fruit man stopped slicing and arranging in homemade iceboxes large cylinders of bright red watermelons and sunshine yellow pineapples that would cool off construction workers. The young beggars stopped their pitiful song and dance between the constant influx of cars that lined the town’s busy streets.
Rosita and her children had returned from the States again; only this time to say their farewells and bury their beloved matriarch.
On the drive from abuelito’s house to what would now and forever forward be known as abuelita’s-house-in-the-past-tense, leftover grief rose thick and salty, like charcoal smoke in my throat once reality hit and settled in: she had died of a broken heart, and was now gone.
On that drive all I could think about was how no one had ever asked for, let alone written down, any of her recipes. No one had ever asked her if she had ever realized her dreams?
Now that she was gone, who would be the keeper of these?
My abuelita is the only person who has ever looked me in the eye and called me beautiful. The only person who said the word and meant it, with no expectation of a return attached. Called me beautiful without picking my body apart. Without zeroing and focusing in, compartmentalizing my beauty to a particular or specific thing. Did not render my beauty to something renderable. Did not exoticize my features to something exoticizeable, as throughout my life I had so often experienced.
But rather, she saw beauty in my totality. Saw me as a complete being. Saw me as beautiful. Named my beauty as lovable. My abuelita saw me.
And now that she’s gone who will be the keeper of my dreams?
Although Mexican mangos are probably the most transported to the U.S., and accessible to me in New York City, Honduran mangos have and will always be my favorite kind. I can’t describe their exact taste, only know that they taste like home. This is why it pains my soul and heart to pay for mangos: to pay for one of the few things from my childhood that was given to us in surplus and abundance.
Instructions: Pick your mango. You can use a green or ripened mango: the green will be more sour while the ripened more sweeter. Squeeze the mango gently. A ripened mango will give in slightly, while the green will be firm and bounce back at your fingers’ touch.
My grandfather didn’t have much––as a single father that raised three children, or as a grandfather of many grandchildren in his old age. What he did have, however, was a mango tree in his small concrete backyard that tree mangos grew in surplus and abundance. So much that my grandfather would have to leave bagfuls at the gate of the house’s front entrance for passersbys to help themselves to after he had run out of family members, friends, and neighbors to give them to. Everyone except my abuelita.
Direcciones: With a peeler, peel the skin off the mango, balancing the pressure of the peeler carefully in order not to bruise, depending which mango you choose.
A different house structurally, made of wood slabs and clay, but on the same plot of government-given land where my mother, tia and tio had been raised after he had taken them from my abuelita. After his disapperance across Central America and subsequent return to Progreso years later.
We visited Honduras every summer, dividing our time equally between this house and my abuelita’s home, which sat perched and hidden on a mountaintop, near a hospital, on land purchased by my mother. The first land and house my abuelita could ever claim as her own.
Instructions: Once completely peeled, slice the mango meat off and as close to its center seed as possible. Once off, then slice the mango flesh into wedges, as thick or as thin as you desire. If the mango is green, slice the mango meat thin, and if ripened, thick.
Cumin is the one singular smell that immediately transports me back to Honduras. To my abuelita’s house and kitchen. To my abuelita. It was one of her favorite and most used spices. It’s earthy, wooden and toasted fragrant smell and taste is effortlessly identifiable and unmistakable. It’s the kind of spice meant to be used in moderation because it can easily, and unforgivingly, overpower anything and everything––whether you intended to, or not.
Direcciones: Place the mango slices in a round bowl. This is important in order to catch and contain all liquids. Next, season the mango slices with salt and cumin, a pinch at a time. Afterwards, squeeze the juice out of a half or a full lemon or lime. Add hot sauce if desired. Adjust all ingredients accordingly and completely on your preferred taste and preference.
Recently my friend Sakina––on a trip back from her own home country Morocco––gifted me an array of Moroccan spices, both muted and colorful ones. They were not labeled, so when I asked her their names and how to use them, she replied that some were not translatable or describable in the English language.
I know that feeling well.
At home, I loosened and untucked the knot of each small plastic spice bag, revealed each opening––and inhaled––before carefully dumping each of its content into its own respective mason jar.
Cumin was the only one I could identify by smell and sight.
Instructions: Lastly, if adventurous, drink the remaining spiced lime or lemon and mango juice concoction that remains at the bottom of the bowl.
My abuelita has been gone for years now. Her beloved cumin wasn’t able to revive or bring her back.
My grandfather is currently on bed rest and bound to a wheelchair, awaiting his turn at death, never again able to ride his bicycle into the city, or climb his beloved mango tree. Never again able to give mangos to everyone and anyone who would take one, or some.
Mangos estilo Hondureño are where and how for me my abuelito and abuelita, my two sets of different childhood experiences with and from each, can meet and co-exist together peacefully, through one dish, and at the same time.
When I think about my abuelita, food, cooking and the kitchen often come to mind. Aside from being an exceptional cook––masterful at preparing and preserving food––it was through food and her process of cooking that one got to know her more intimately. That she got to know you. Unlike my mother, whose relationship to food was that of serviceability, functionality, and to ensure that her two children were always fed with real and unprocessed foods, my abuelita truly enjoyed being in the kitchen.
She asked questions.
She wanted to know how you wanted your eggs scrambled––did you want one egg or two? Wanted to know if your coffee was too black––did you want your milk warmed or cold? Why cold? Wanted to know how many tortillas did you want––one, two, or a few? What Honduran man only eats two tortillas? Wanted to know what you wanted to eat upon your arrival to Honduras and what should she gather and prepare for your departure. What did you want to take “back home” with you?
Wanted to know. Wanted to know you.
My abuelita purchased, chucked and milled corn from fresh elotes to make her own tortillas, tamales and tamalitos. Sat the milk out to her own cuajada cheese. Used pineapple skin peels to make homemade vinegar. Sliced and diced carrots, onions and jalapeños in recycled glass jars to make her own curtido. Rolled her tortillas out with a used, greased, glass soda bottle, before rounding and evening out their shape beween the pressure of her small fingers. She would make a bowl of refried black beans––smashed with a coffee mug, at that––taste holy, as though it were the last meal you requested on earth. (Perhaps the leftover porkchop fat grease she fried them in that also helped.)
On mornings that I wake up wrapped in longing and missing her––when I smell her scent in a Honduran breeze passing by, or catch a sniff of her milky tortillas de hariña wafting underneath my bedroom door, or locate the familiar fragrance of crushed garlic in her baked beans or the aroma of fried pork fat oil in the smashed, billowing and lulling like prayer clouds from the kitchen––I get out of bed on a mission to prepare myself a meal to find her. Reconnect with her.
On these mornings I make baleadas: big flour tortillas that are first layered with mashed black beans, and then topped with sour cream, and grated hard cheese or semi-soft cheese. Sometimes I add pillowy soft, buttery scrambled eggs, and other times half-moon slices of creamy, ripened avocado. Sometimes I include them all.
On other mornings I make tajadas de platano by carefully slicing and frying beige, circular discs of unripened plantains in a pool of bubbling coconut oil, and lightly salt them immediately afterwards.
Both dishes have the same accompaniments, but are fundamentally different experiences.
No matter which breakfast version I make, I always take the extra step to cook the frijoles fresh and from scratch: allowing the raw beans to first soak in room tempature water, then simmer, boil and stew slow in a sea of salted water and crushed garlic: their firm, black skin wrinkling until splintering and bursting at the end, only to reveal tender, white flesh inside every pod.
No matter which breakfast version I make I never, ever use canned beans because I want to honor this woman––and all indigenous abuelitas––who always found ways to make abundance from nothing. She was the utmost skilled artisan, able to shape the taste of simple ingredients, like beans, taste holy.
My abuelita often laughed–seemed amused, yet intrigued and appreciative–when I would take (more like asked) for a turn in her kitchen. When I pushed (more like nudged) her out of her territory, and out onto the back porch to have a seat on a chair or lay on the maca beneath the shade of a tree while I prepared her a meal. To stay still and do nothing; to not care for anyone else but herself, even if only for a moment.
I miss her greatly. Her laughter. Her small, twinkling eyes. Her sighs, and the “oopale” sound she would make when she was too hot or tired.
Now that she is no longer physically present on this earth I wonder: what were her dreams? Her aspirations? Her unfilled desires? Did she know how much we/I love(d) and appreciate(d) her? Did we ask her enough questions? Did we ever ask her about her dreams?
Now, more than ever, I wonder, where and how do we collect and document our abuelita knowledges? Creativities? Ingenuities? Masteries? In the face of an ever shifting capitalistic, consumeristic, fast-paced and technological-driven American culture, where and how do we keep our abuelita memories alive? Able to exist, live with and among us, and carried on to the next generations to come?
I’d like think my abuelita was and remains the source where my own love for food and passion of cooking for others derives from. (Cooking, and let’s be clear, not washing dishes.)
Would I make her proud?
Now that she is gone, I can’t help but wonder, who will keep the keeper of my own dreams?
I want to remember you: full bodied, full flesh. Intact. Full of life, full of breath. Remember you, in all of your greatness. Your hopes, your dreams, your aspirations: now pillars of strength onto which I lay my worries and troubles to rest. Trusting in the absolute, and that which cannot be seen. Rather knowing, believing that you are still here with me.
I want my life, my footprints on this earth, to bear witness and serve as evidence to the magnitude of the rivers of blood and love that once coursed through you. To bring honor, through actions, to your legacy. To offer you, full circle, tribute and gratitude. That my life may serve as testimony to the vastness of you, the majesty of the fruit of your womb.
I pay tribute.
I want to remember your laughter, your voice; for the sounds, to resonate daily in my ears, in my heart without fail. To gather and collect the syllables that form your name and construct on pillars of love your memory so that it may never dissipate.
Sometimes I close my eyes and I imagine that you are still here, walking among the living and not laid to rest beneath a cold, cruel ground. Unbearable the thought of your flesh, your bones––both that once carried life and gave us life––rotting among the lilies. You deserve so much more.
Abuelita de mi alma, if there is life after death send me a sign. For I await patient for your return night after night, after night. Tirelessly searching for traces of you amidst the faces of children
and reflections of strangers passing through. Await for proof of your once-existence. For imprints of your love across the glow of the moon and stretch of infinite skies.
Siempre seré parte de ti,
el niño de tus ojos