If you were to take a look at the recent posts that I did for my blog I decided to make a “Food Special Series” that highlights one particular food that I grew up loving from the different cultures my family comes from. From the several cultures that have influenced me as a person, I decided to ask this as a question to my Mama when conducting a small interview with her about her Dominican and Puerto Rican side. I grew up with my Abue — my Mama’s mother — always being around me whether it be at family gatherings and events, staying with her over the summer, and visiting her from time to time. I have been heavily influenced by my Dominican and Puerto Rican side of my family and because of that, I decided to interview my Mama to see how those two cultures influenced her. While also learning a little bit more about my Mama, I also got to learn a little bit more about my Abue y Abuelo since I wasn’t able to interview them too.
Let’s begin with how my grandparents came here to New York City. My Abue came to New York City from Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic when she was around 24 to 25 years old. My Mama told me that she came here with her best friend — who is my Mama’s godmother — in search of a better life for themselves and their family. When arriving by boat my Abue didn’t have papers so she had to be very careful since oftentimes the police would ask for papers and randomly searched people. But despite this, my Abue was adventurous. According to my Mama, my Abue loved to tour around New York City. She visited the Statue of Liberty and walked all the steps to the arm of Lady Liberty. She got scared because she said she felt the arm moving when she got up there. She also went to other tourist attractions like the Empire State Building. She lived in the City and worked in a factory to save money to allow her mother, who I call Bica and to this day I don’t know why I called my great-grandmother this, to have a visa to come to New York City. Working in the factory was where my Abue met my Abuelo.
When hearing this story of where my grandparents met, it made me think as to how this was possible. There is a conceit that Dominicans and Puerto Ricans don’t get along and for decades the two groups of people have had their feuds. This was due to the fact that when Dominicans immigrated into New York City, that many of the occupations and jobs — such as running bodegas and taxis — were becoming dominated by them what was once dominated by the existing Puerto Rican population (Spanish 265). It is because of this that conflict between the two groups began historically, however, this wasn’t the case for my grandparents, thankfully.
My Abuelo came from Puerto Rico and stayed with his Mama who had already moved to New Jersey and had remarried. He would travel back and forth from Jersey and New York City to work and help support his mother. Eventually, Abue and Abuelo got married and moved to Elmhurst in the apartment that to this day she still lives in. It was in that apartment where my Mama and her sisters grew up in and later where my brother, cousins, and I would grow up in as well. So much history and memories are found within those walls of my Abue’s home.
Shifting over to my Mama now, growing up Dominican and Puerto Rican meant that she had grown up with many of the foods and cultures that came from those respected places. Though my Abuelo ended up leaving the family once she entered high school, and came back later when she was a young adult, my Mama was able to share with me the memories that she had with both my Abue and Abuelo to share with those reading this post.
Beginning with food, my Mama told me that ever since she was a little girl she loved it when Abue would cook. She said that she loved the “aromas” and eventually wanted to learn how to cook like her Mama. She told me that she would make little “food demos” as she called it to practice cooking smaller things and then gradually moving up to bigger things like “rice, beans, and chicken” (Almodovar). She also expressed in the interview on how similar and different Dominican and Puerto Rican foods are from one another. In a lot of cases, these two cultures use similar ingredients such as the platano but use the ingredients to make different foods. My Mama explained a bit about Mangú and Mofongo as an example,
“… the Mangú is more mashed potato-like form versus the other which is Mofongo. What they do is that they crush it and they crush it with bacon or whatever you like but it is toasted. It is the same concept the only thing is that Mangú is usually made as a breakfast dish while the Mofongo is like an appetizer and could be used for dinner time” (Almodovar).
Here, despite the differences in when these particular foods are served and how they are prepared, they both use the same common ingredient of the platano or green plantain.
Among other dishes that my Mama loved when Abue would cook was Sancocho and she even told me that the day before I was born she had asked Abue to make some Sancocho because she really wanted to have some. I never knew of this beforehand so this was very interesting to find out about. When speaking with my Mama she also told me of two foods that I haven’t heard of which is Asopao and Paella.
Asopao is similar to Sancocho in terms of it being very warm and filling, and typically are made during the colder months of the year. Asopao is like thick rice stew that has carrots, celery, olives, cilantro, onions, and some sofrito and adobo (Mercado).
And Paella is a dish that contains many ingredients such as shrimp, oysters, meat, yellow rice, and clams and finds its origins to Spain itself (Rosengarten). According to my Mama, however, it can be expensive to make Paella due to all the ingredients that go into it. Even saffron is added to give the coloring to the rice so because of this it is probably why I haven’t heard of this dish in the first place.
When elaborating upon my Mama’s Puerto Rican side and the experiences that she had regarding food, two things that popped up in the conversation was Pasteles y Piragua. During the holidays, my Mama’s told me that it was a tradition of theirs to make pasteles together as a family. She mentioned,
“My mom would be the one in charge to prepare the meat, you know, she would cut it up and cook it. I was in charge with my sisters to shred down the potatoes, the yellow bananas, the carrots everything that has to do with making the masa. . . for the pasteles” (Almodovar).
Abuelo would put the masa together and wrap it around with a leaf and a wax-like paper and my Mama would be in charge of tieing it with string to keep it closed. Then to cook it, it would only need to be dropped into hot water for it to cook inside of the leaf. This recollection of my Mama’s youth made me think about when my Abuelo would make pasteles during Christmas time. I didn’t think much about them because it was food and I love food, but I never knew that there was a tradition of making it during this time and why he would make so many for us to be able to take home. It just makes me more appreciative of the little things that I overlooked, and this also applies to food my Abue makes as well.
Lastly, there is the Piragua. Piragua is a Puerto Rican icy dessert that takes shaved ice into a paper cone and on top are drizzled flavored syrups. This cooling treat is served with a straw not to slurp the Piragua, but to poke at the ice as you eat it with the ice and the flavored syrups (Vidal and Almodovar). My Mama told me about how Bica and my Abuelo would have a Piragua stand during the summertime and sell it to make some extra income. They sold the small for 50 cents, medium for 75 cents, and large for one dollar and they had various flavors such as raspberry, tamarindo, orange, lime, lemon, and dulce de leche.
Back then there wasn’t a need to have a license to sell food or other items on the street so they took advantage and ended up being quite popular in the neighborhood. She told me, “We were a hit. Every summer people were always like, ‘where is your dad and your grandmother? Where are the Piraguas!? Where are the Piraguas!?’” (Almodovar) I remembered at some point my Mama had told me this story when I was younger, since it was because of these Piragua stands that she and her sisters would be able to go outside.
My Abue and Abuelo were very strict when it came to my Mama and my titis because they wanted them safe in their home. However, during the summertime, they took the opportunity to be able to spend some time outdoors. I almost forgot about this story because I don’t see many Piragua stands in Queens that would trigger the memory that my Mama had told me that at one point Abuelo and Bica ran a Piragua cart in the 1980s. If it weren’t for this interview it would probably be a while till I can recall this interesting aspect of my family’s history.
From conducting this interview, I gave myself the opportunity to learn more about my Mama and her upbringing alongside learning more about my Abue y Abuelo. It was a moment of enriching narratives and insight on how my cultures have affected my Mama in a positive manner. I now have an even greater appreciation for where I come from and the choices of my grandparents to come here for a better life for my Mama and her sisters. If it weren’t for them, my Mama wouldn’t be around and me following afterward. I aspire to take this interview as a film-oriented documentary series on the adventures and struggles of my grandparents so I can continue to learn more about them and how it was like coming to New York City. It will be very interesting to listen to them explaining their experiences migrating here as well as learn more on their perspectives to being influenced by their Dominican and Puerto Rican foods and culture.
Almodovar, Elizabeth. Personal Interview. 10, May 2020.
Mercado, Angely. “Survive the Rest of Winter with Sancocho and Asopao.” Brooklyn Based, 11 Mar. 2020, brooklynbased.com/2020/03/11/where-to-eat-sancocho-and-asopao/.
Students of Spanish 265, “Exploring the Latino Metropolis: DR versus PR.” Exploring the Latino Metropolis: A Brief Urban Cultural History of US Latinos, Baldwin Wallace University scalar.usc.edu/works/latino-metropolis-a-brief-urban-cultural-history-of-us-latinos—1/dr-versus-pr.
Rosengarten, David. “What Is Paella? Exploring a Spanish Art.” Saveur, www.saveur.com/article/Kitchen/The-Art-of-Paella/.
Vidal, David. “Piragueros Refresh Passers‐By and Keep the Wolf From the Door.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 11 Aug. 1975, http://www.nytimes.com/1975/08/11/archives/piragueros-refresh-passersby-and-keep-the-wolf-from-the-door.html.