“Hola, cómo estás?” is usually as far as I can go with speaking conversational Spanish. When I would playfully try to go beyond the friendly introductions with my mom, she would giggle and repeat the phrase I just said, but with the Spanish rhythmic tones that dance off the tongue and sway into the air.
I wasn’t always like this. When I was a toddler, I spoke perfect Spanish. The kind that would make Dora the Explorer jealous. But something happened. My family unintentionally decided not to continue teaching me and my cousins a second language, and we were left to fend for ourselves. Am I being dramatic? Absolutely, but for fair reason.
Hearing others speak the language that I was supposed to easily regurgitate makes me imagine an alternate universe. Scenarios flash inside my mind of magically being able to converse with other Spanish-speaking friends as if this skill had never left me. I thought my dreams would come true when I took Spanish classes in high school and college, but you can probably guess how that turned out.
Granted, it was never a concern of mine that I would not identify with being Puerto Rican. My family engulfed me in my heritage ever since I was little. I remember waking up in my grandmother’s home to pulsating beats of Celia Cruz coming from the kitchen. And as I would walk down the hall to greet her, I would find my grandmother dancing with a muumuu on, cooking a big pot of arroz con pollo. “Hola, Mamacita,” she would exclaim over the music, without skipping a beat. Lowering music was forbidden in our household. It made more sense to her to talk over the notes that would reverberate through the air. For the longest time, this was the only alarm I ever knew to wake up to.
Because of this, the kitchen became the oasis of the heritage I’ve longed for. It is the only place where I feel comfortable enough to dance like a Hispanic person, cook like a Hispanic person, and (attempt) to sing like a Hispanic person. And every time I would visit my grandmother in her home in Orlando, she would blissfully remind me that I was not alone.
The familiarity of my heritage took a hiatus when my grandma passed away at the end of last year, and for the first time in my life, I felt lost. She was the last family member who knew how to fluently speak Spanish, and I started to question if my lack of linguistic capabilities was prohibiting me from feeling connected to my roots.
I started to second-guess myself and my identity in ways that I never thought I would. Without her, who can I turn to when I want to channel my history? How can I teach my future children about their heritage when I don’t even speak the language? It took me a while to return to my kitchen without pain overcoming me. I wanted to celebrate her when the time was right, and the only way I knew how was by cooking a family recipe and blasting Julio Iglesias in the background.
Eventually, that time arrived, and I slowly came to realize that my relationship with my heritage will always be there, whether I know how to speak the language or not. I grew up in a house with a strong, boasting Hispanic woman who made the kitchen feel like the heart of the home. And now, when I cook and dance in the kitchen, I’m reminded of my childhood.
I may not be able to understand every word that is played through the speakers or have an in-depth conversation with one of my Spanish-speaking friends, but when I’m in this room, I feel close to my heritage, and now, to her. And that’s more than enough for me. Because even though I’m no longer able to communicate with her, the spices in my arroz con pollo and the notes from Celia Cruz’s songs will comfort me and remind me that I am, too, a strong, boasting Hispanic woman, muumuu dress and all.
Inspired to make your own Hispanic dishes? Below are four recipes you can cook at home.
Stuffed Plantain Cups (Tostones Rellenos)
Instead of waiting at your favorite Cuban restaurant for hours, you can create your own stuffed plantain cups in under 40 minutes. With crispy brown plantains, a drizzle of mayo, and shredded, cooked beef, this will be the tastiest meal you’ll make all week.
Get the recipe on Smart Little Cookie.
Arroz Con Pollo
You can never go wrong with a chicken and rice dish. But when you add sofrito and vegetables to the mix, you take a classic recipe to a new level.
Get the recipe on The Noshery.
Classic Mojito Recipe
Feeling parched? There’s no better way to quench your thirst than by making a classic mojito. Instead of using sour mix, put your muscles to the test and squeeze enough limes to make a tastier (and healthier) Cuban drink.
Get the recipe on Isabel Eats.
Tarta de Santiago
While this cake named after apostle St. James is usually made during the holidays, you can break the rules and create this tart when you’re in the mood for something sweet and moist. Pair it with a cup of coffee to complement the citrus and almond notes for a perfect afternoon treat.
Get the recipe on Gourmet Traveller.
More recipes to try: