No matter the art form, storytelling is my passion. As a filmmaker, I point my camera toward migrant stories and the work of women artists. I believe that visibility is empowering; the role of the artist is to highlight what we cannot see before us. As a writer, the voices that compel me are the ones that begin organically, originating from raw emotion, a fleeting memory, or the collision of ideas. Storytelling is an impulse that I satisfy with the production of something tangible: a film, a poem, a short story, a painting, music, a dance, a meaningful conversation. All of it, with a side of Nicaraguan coffee. Black. No sugar. Just the flavor of mi tierra is enough.
We arrived back in Managua in the middle of the hurricane season in July. It was my seventh consecutive summer since my parents and I had relocated to Gringo-Landia. Inside my Abue’s house, there wasn’t a single dry neck from the humidity of that afternoon’s downpour. Even the wooden panel walls had a coat of sweat. In the backyard, displaced green caterpillars relished in the wet soil, waiting for the droplets of rain to fall from the leaky tin roof, down mango leaf pipes, and finally on to their backs; the cooling effect of a single raindrop. One day they would turn into delightful butterflies, if Pepita, Abue’s trusted chicken didn’t get to them first. The destitute life of caterpillars always intrigued me.
Abue’s kitchen was more like a long open hallway in the middle of the house, defined only by a small gas stove, a small sink with potable water, and a mini-fridge that had to be disconnected when anyone needed to iron. The wire for the outlet hung visibly from the unfinished ceiling, like in the bedrooms. Before moving away to Gringo-Landia, where electrical wiring was usually concealed, I remember getting lost in thought on Sundays while assembling nacatamales as a family, trying to trace the direction of all the cables that ran through the house back to the fuse box. The mini-highways of intertwined wires, before I even knew what highways were, foreshadowed the loneliness my interconnected life in Gringo-Landia.
Occasionally while studying these maps of wires on the ceiling, I would make eye contact with an agreeable house lizard. I would look up, when I really needed to look down and pay attention to how much masa I was placing on the banana leaf before handing it off to my uncle, who would place bell peppers, onions, and yerba buena on top. I always added too much masa, and Abue would reveal her disapproval at the end of the assembly line with an ‘arrugón de cara’ whenever she couldn’t close the nacatamal with mecate because it was too fat. Fat nacatamales, although immensely savory, were always imperfect in her eyes.
...“Ya se me Agringó esta chavala,” she probably thought. She’s now too American and can’t even fry a plantain properly.
That misty July afternoon, Abue handed me a green plátano to peel. She gave me a pan and firmly instructed, “hacelo vos.” At sixteen, I was already hecha mujer and it was time to prove myself in Abue’s kitchen. There was nowhere to run; the childhood comfort of hiding in the assembly line for making nacatamales was gone.
I began the peeling process of the green cáscara, by carefully slicing from top the bottom, then detaching the sides further with the tip of the knife. A trick I had learned by watching other fritangueras, the queens of street food. I finished the rest of the peeling action with my fingers, in true Abue-style. She watched me intently every step of the way. Luckily, I could blame the humidity for the increasing beads of sweat on my forehead. Once peeled, I cut diagonal slices of plátano on a wooden board. Abue studied the thick tajadas carefully and intervened, “tienen que quedar mas delgaditas.” Thinner. Always thinner. Like the dresses she sowed for me growing up. I always looked like an overstuffed nacatamal with my little panza tied in a bow.
I poured oil in the pan and turned on the stove. I could feel the weight of Abue’s eyes on me. When the oil was hot enough I placed the first (now corrected) thin tajada inside; it immediately began to sizzle. She never took her eyes off me, wondering if the prickly oil would burn my delicate hand as I put the rest of the tajadas in the pan. I patiently waited until turning them over. When I thought it was time, I grabbed a fork and began to flip the first ones. She forcefully intervened a second time and commanded, “dejalos más doraditos.”
More brown, Gringa.
Her timing was impeccable. I could hear the disappointment in the tone of her voice: “Ya se me Agringó esta chavala,” she probably thought. She’s now too American and can’t even fry a plantain properly. But it wasn’t just my cooking that she was judging. I may have been her nieta a-dorada, but I was never dorada enough for Abue. While supervising my cooking, I could feel how she studied my chela hands, my chela arms, and my light brown hair. I was too light-skin for a Nica, and after living in Gringo-Landia for just a few years, my skin had turned the color of green plátano-beige. I needed to be fried a little longer. She grabbed the fork from my hand and finished frying the plantains herself.
I was still cruda in the kitchen.
I sat defeated at the dining table looking out the window, watching Pepita peck the wet soil in search for green caterpillars. Suddenly, Abue slid a plate of perfectly fried tajadas con queso in front of me. She gave me her signature arrugón de cara, shrugged a bit, and repeated, “No te me agringués, mi niña. En la proxima, más doraditos.” Plantains with cheese never felt more like home than on that rainy afternoon, the first and last time I cooked with Abue in her kitchen.
Now in my own Gringo-Landia kitchen, distinguishable only by the covered ceiling, a working microwave and dishwasher I never use, dusty stainless steel appliances, and a self-cleaning oven that doesn’t need me, I smile when I peel plátanos with my fingers, a la Abue-style, wishing I could hear her scorn me once again: más doraditos.