Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Walking in a Goya wonderland

My family in PR has grown over the years to such a size that buying Christmas gifts for everyone is cost-prohibitive. The kids and my grandparents all get gifts, but the rest of the adults go the Secret Santa route.
I was the only one in the family not in PR for the holidays, but I participated anyway. I drew my cousin Melissa, and sent her a nifty Portland hoodie. My aunt Annie's husband, Tony, drew my name (for the second year in a row!), and this is what he and Annie sent:

Gandules, Coco Lopez, coffee, adobo, oh my! The two plastic containers in the middle are full of such treats as dulce de coco and ajonjolí. Also, please note that even before I took the picture Dave and I tore into the turrón.

There's nothing quite like a care package, full of goodies from home. My grandparents used to send me some every few months; aside from groceries, they also contained bags of pilones, which were a childhood treat but I still love, and magazines such as Vea and TV Guía. It was imperative that I be kept up-to date with the goings-on of Z-list Puerto Rican celebrities. I mean, I'm sarcastic about it, but I have a soft spot for that junk. At one point my grandfather gave me a subscription to Vea, and I always wondered what the mailman thought of these weird Spanish-language magazines with the obligatory cover picture of a shouldn't-be-in-a-bikini-but-yet-there-she-is-in-one starlet. Even silly things like that can really help one feel a little more connected to home, a little more like absence doesn't mean that you forget. As much as I know that I won't become disconnected from home, and would never allow myself to, a care package is kind of like a little bit of reassurance in a box.

Monday, December 24, 2007


Pardon me if I change stuff around here periodically. Sometimes it's hard to know whether or not a layout is a good fit until I live with it for a while. So if things change around here, bear with me!

Meri crismas

A couple of weeks ago, Dave and I went to a Christmas tree farm to get a tree:

Dave chopped one down for us:

And we ended up with this:

The trees at this farm were all beautiful and healthy. It was fun to see kids running around, trying to find the perfect tree. It was probably fun to see me getting lost, trying to remember where I saw that one tree that I liked. If anyone gets the chance to go to a farm instead of buying one off the lot, I'd recommend it.

¡Felíz Navidad!

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Pork chop? Seriously?

The Philadelphia Phillie's Triple A baseball team, the IronPigs has a mascot -- a "large, furry pig". A contest was held to choose a name for the mascot, and PorkChop won. But there's controversy! It appears that in Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley, Puerto Ricans were once nicknamed Pork Chop.

I can see why, honestly. Personally, I love me a good chuleta, and I know I'm not the only one. However, there are people who still remember being called this name in the very region that houses this baseball team, and they're bristling.

The examples given by those interviewed in the article show that this happened "decades" ago. It doesn't appear to be a term that's currently in use. I'm all for being mindful of these kinds of things, but this strikes me as an exaggerated response to a name that was clearly not meant to insult Puerto Ricans or anyone else. A pork chop is an actual object that, independently of any sketchy usage in the past, means nothing nowadays but what it has originally meant -- a delicious part of the pig. And it ties into the mascot itself.

I understand that to those who rememebr this, it may bring back bad memories. But the way I see it, immediate condemnation is not always the answer. Sometimes we need to step back and look at the bigger picture. If hardly anyone remembers this usage, if it's a completely normal word that is still in use, and if it was chosen for reasons wholly unrelated to Puerto Ricans, wouldn't it have been better to not dredge this arcane slur back up? Isn't leaving it buried in the past better than giving it new life? At what point do we let go and move on as a community?

Deck the halls with boughs of banana leaves

Thanksgiving just came and went, and now it's officially The Holiday Season.

Preparing for holidays, and looking for ways to incorporate the traditions of your own country with those of your new one, can be interesting. My mom and sister came to visit for Thanksgiving, and while most of the spread was your standard Turkey Day fare (not to say it wasn't absolutely delicious -- I love a traditional Thanksgiving feast), we tried to include a couple of PR touches. My mom made arroz con gandules, and she and I made coquito.

The arroz con gandules was eaten, for the most part. The coquito was given only a cursory tasting. Why is that? If people will drink eggnog, then why not coquito? I know it's not the same as eggnog, but I have to say that a coconut and milk drink sounds better to me than an egg drink. And if it's spiked with rum, even better! I had my coquito and loved every bit, but it's not quite the same when not too many people join you.

Now that I'm starting to think about Christmas and New Year's, I'm looking for ways to bring a bit of PR to Oregon. But there are obstacles. For example, throwing a bucket of water out the front door when the clock strikes midnight on New Year's Eve isn't as festive if you consider that the cold temperatures will turn the water into ice, and then you've got a potential lawsuit on your hands. Or you could try to start a parranda, but forget about lawsuits: you'd likely have an angry friend yelling obscenities at you for waking them up in the middle of the night and demanding to be let in to party and be fed.

There are also traditions I'm happy to have left behind. To wit, the constant barrage of firecrackers that people like to set off just after Thanksgiving and all throughout the Christmas season. And what about those things that people call cuartos de dinamita? Are those really dynamite? But let's not forget about those who like to shoot their guns into the air at midnight on New Year's Eve. 'Tis the season for post-traumatic stress syndrome!

I'm starting to form new traditions. This year will be the second time that I'll head to a Christmas tree farm with my husband and in-laws to cut down my own Christmas Tree. I have some hand-me-down ornaments that my mom gave me -- I remember when she bought them, and hopefully they'll last me a long time. I love putting them up and remembering past holidays. And while in PR my New Year's Eves were spent with family, over here we've started to spend that night with friends. We get together at someone's house, or close our eyes and hand over a crazy cover charge to go catch some live music and festivities. But in one way or another, I hope to be able to bring the holiday season, PR-style, to Oregon. If I can't throw water out the door, I'll sweep out the bad juju instead. Or hand out grapes for people to eat (twelve each, for good luck on each month of the year). Sure, I'll have to take the time to explain these things to people. But if anything, I've found that my friends enjoy learning about these things, and will happily partake. It won't mean the same thing to them as it does to me, but there's something almost equally satisfying about showing people how things are done where you're from, and having them enjoy it.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007


I had bistec encebollado last night for dinner, a classic from my PR-food repertoire. The word bistec, I assume, is a Spanishization (that's a word now) of "beefsteak". I wanted to see if beefsteak and cube steak are the same thing, so I Googled "cube steak" in order to find a picture. I found this:

Is it just me, or is that bistec in the shape of PR?

Saturday, November 3, 2007

It's that time of year again

Time to fall back! Tomorrow at 2am, we set our clocks one hour back, thereby ensuring that it will still be pitch-black when our alarm clocks awaken us in the morning. Huzzah!

I admit that the time-change makes me a little sad, in a silly kind of way. The rest of the year, the time difference between PR and the West Coast is three hours. Now it's four. It's almost as though the distance between here and there grows for a few months a year. In real life, it only impacts me when I make a phone call to PR, as I have to be mindful of the time; otherwise, it's not an issue. But the ay, bendito side of me is prone to such melancholies.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

For the love of Chavez!

Over the last few weeks, I've been watching a situation play out here in Portland that is a shining example that the immigration issue in this country is a many-splendored thing. It's not just about who is here illegally, or who's taking a job from who. It's also about how those who are here to stay impact their new communities.

A few weeks ago, a push was made to re-name Interstate Avenue, located in North Portland, after Cesar Chavez. In recent years, other roadways have been re-named: Union Avenue became Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard, and Portland Boulevard was recently named after Rosa Parks. Residents of Portland Boulevard were not asked if they wanted their street re-named -- the mayor and city council simply decreed it so. This upset residents and local business-owners, as name changes can be costly -- not to mention that city code requires that the re-naming be approved by voters.

Interstate was once, a long time ago, the only road Oregonians could take to leave the state and head into Washington. It has its own history in the context of the city in which it resides. Previous re-namings, done to honor civil-rights leaders, met with little resistance, however, the fact that Portland Boulevard was re-named without a vote upset some people. In this instance, when a group of citizens proposed naming Interstate after Chavez, Mayor Tom Potter and the City Council seemed poised to do it again, and this time all hell has broken loose. Residents are angry that they were not going to be consulted. Advocates of the name change are outraged at what they perceive to be racism. In the end, the process has been halted and a compromise is being sought. Some are recommending that another street be named, one in a part of town where more Hispanics live and, therefore, the name would actually represent the residents. Others are suggesting that we could re-name a park, instead, since that affects less people and less businesses. The advocacy group that brought up the suggestion to honor Chavez with Interstate Avenue is not considering any compromise: now, it's a matter of principle.

And there we have it. At the center of it all is race. If any issue involves a minority, race finds a way to overshadow all debate. Even Mayor Potter suggested that those against re-naming Interstate had racist motives at heart. Of course, this further incensed those opposed to the re-naming, because all their reasons were tinged with nefarious motives, ones that they vehemently denied had anything to do with anything. But those who do see racism feel that just because you don't think you're a racist, it doesn't mean you aren't one.

I confess I've sat here, reading about the controversy, with my mouth (figuratively) hanging open. Race has become this huge monster that devours everyting in its path. Why? Because we're scared of it. Not in a racist, I-hate-people-who-are-not-like-me kind of way, but because the topic has become so delicate, that even broaching it leaves you open for misinterpretation and politically-correct landmines. Some are so scared to appear un-PC that they go too far in the direction of supporting anything as long as it's tied to a minority, perhaps because of guilt, or of fear of being called the r-word. Others are so overwhelmed with these landmines that they rebel in the other direction, and refuse to acknowledge that race is still an issue we have yet to work out.

I feel somewhat embarassed for the non-Hispanics who are vehemently defending the name change. I feel like they are glomming on to this as a way to show all of us that They Are Not Racist. I feel embarassed even for the Hispanics involved in the name-change committee, because they are now convinced that by not wanting to change the name of a street, Portland is virulently racist and A Point Must Be Made. And, of course, I feel embarassed for anyone who may oppose the name-change for racist reasons.

The thing is, the vast majority of the arguments against the change seem reasonable to me. Proper process should be followed. When you don't, you leave the door open for abuse, and for discontent. By assuming that everyone would shut up and be compliant with random name changes because a Hispanic was the honoree, Mayor Potter made things exponentially worse. The whole pitch is that re-naming the street is meant to honor Hispanics in Portland. But I, personally, question the wisdom of assuming that by honoring one man from one particular Latin American country, you are honoring all Latin Americans. Once again, I feel like in this town Hispanic = Mexican. We're all the same, right?

As a Hispanic in Portland, I don't need a token street. I need for the city to provide resources for Hispanics to get ahead. All this brouhaha, and, really, is it doing anything for Hispanics? All attention that could go to "Latino issues" is being devoted to some street. It's maddening. And what's worse is that it's a group of Hispanics actively fueling this fire. We can't see beyond our own race issues; it's not helping our communities, and it's not helping us forge a place in this city.

So what happens, then, when immigrants move in in enough numbers to make themselves felt, and to make a home for themselves in a new place? What is the line you draw between recognizing them and welcoming them, and maintaining the city's own identity? I think part of the unease that Americans may feel is that with new nationalities may come a loss of identity and history. As newcomers, we may want to start thinking about how to co-exist, how to set up shop and make our presence known, but still respect the history and integrity of our new homes. We're not here to take over -- we're here to live our lives. It may be easier said than done, but I think it's essential to do so if we hope to ease tensions. It's not just white people who have to be "tolerant" -- we're all bunking together now and we all need to make it work.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Images from a car

A local park with lots of autumn goodness:

Defacing public property:

Friday, October 26, 2007

Look to the right!

I added a glossary of words in Spanish, because sometimes it's awkward to work the meaning in to the post. It's not complete yet, I don't think, so if I missed one, avísenme.

That's my sneaky way of making you look.

Do you hear what I hear?

Earlier this week I went out to lunch with a coworker. As we took our seats, I noticed that the girl in the booth behind ours was speaking in Spanish. I immediately picked out the accent: the girl had to be from PR. Sure enough, a few seconds later she mentioned having been there recently.

I thought to myself, "When she hangs up, I'm going to talk to her." I figured that I'd like it if someone showed their mancha de platano to me if the situation were reversed. But then I worried that by having noticed her accent, I might be mistaken for having snooped on her conversation.

I mulled that one over, and then I realized she sounded upset as she was talking. So I actually did start to snoop and, indeed, she sounded furious. I decided I'd better not say anything and mind my own metiche business.

I've rarely gotten a chance to approach the few boricuas I have seen around here. And I know they were boricuas not because I was snooping on them, but because they branded themselves -- one guy had a patch of the PR flag on his jacket, another had a flag hanging from his car's rearview mirror. But, at lunch the other day, I had to laugh because my very first instinct was to flash my PR badge, feeling sure that this girl would respond in kind. When I lived in Florida I had to repress the urge to do that at first, because we're not such a rare specimen 'round those parts. I can only imagine what a Puerto Rican who has been there for a long time would think if someone excitedly said, "Hey, I'm from PR too!" Look around you, zangano, so is everyone else.

In Portland, though, the Puerto Ricans I have approached have reacted just like I expected them to -- really happy to find another Puerto Rican. I've received invitations to come over for an evening of arroz con gandules and salsa music. I've gone gone out with them to see the PR group Plena Libre perform in front of hundreds Portlanders who had no idea what to expect from the band, but were intrigued enough to check them out anyway. I'm not exactly the best dancer out there, but that was one night where my footwork easily outshone everyone else's!

I'm not very extroverted when it comes to approaching someone new. With Puerto Ricans in Portland, though, those inhibitions disappear. I guess when you weigh the possibility of embarassment with the possibility of finding others like you in a place where there aren't many, social anxiety has a way of seeming silly.

So the furious lunch girl: I did snoop, but it was with the best of intentions. And, to be honest, I still have no idea what she was so mad about!

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Cafe Crema

They don't make them like this anymore.

Esta es mi escuela

Catchy jingle, and, looking back, a very sweet commercial. Especially fun to sing in a sarcastic way when something went wrong at your school.


Intro to the single best cartoon on PR TV in the 80's. Even if it was Japanese.

Super sábados

This one's a longer one, it's a segment of Super Sabados, that variety show that seemed to last 15 hours and was on almost every TV on Saturday nights.


In the past couple of months I've noticed that people have started adding some old Puerto Rican commercials to YouTube. I've also found clips of old TV shows that I used to watch as a kid. I'm posting some here so you can walk down memory lane too.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Seasons in the sun

I've been thinking. I know. Anyway, I've been thinking that I like seasons. Also, that I don't like the heat so much.

Fall is rolling in right around now, and in Portland that means days of 60 degree temperatures, colorful leaves that only stick around for a couple of weeks before the customary autumn rain dumps them on the ground, and a respite from sweating.

This summer was not particularly hot, and it was nice while it lasted. But I have to confess that I was looking forward to fall, even with all its rain. I like the change of scenery and the change in temperature. I like how the air turns crisp, and you can feel it nipping at your skin. I like that I get to wear slimming jackets.

When I lived in PR, I think hardly a day went by where I didn't say "Ay, que calor". Unless I have a nice ocean or refreshing pool to jump right into, I've never been a fan of the heat. At first, realizing this, I felt bad, thinking that I was being a bad Puerto Rican. Because we all like the heat, right? All the time?

I'm not so sure, because if I complained about the heat almost every day, I just as often heard other people complaining about it too. I have my suspicions about how we all love the heat. So on that front, I feel vindicated.

But as nice as a year-long summer sounds, especially around, oh, January, I think my change-craving nature is well-served by living in a place that has four distinct seasons. To me, each Portland season can each be summarized with one color: fall is yellow, because it's the predominant color of the autumn palette; winter is gray, because, let's face it, that's the color of the sky during those rainy months; spring is a pale pink, because of the cherry blossom trees that sprout to life; summer is emerald green, because all that winter rain makes lush grass and trees possible. Not only do I get a new city every few months, but it all reminds me of how everything is linked, and even dreary things like winter rain serve a purpose.

It's not just the temperature that changes, or the foliage. Foods change, with different fruits and vegetables coming and going. I find myself craving different things depending on the time of year, and, come to find out, those things that I crave are what's in season. Just about a week ago I thought to myself, "Hmm, apples sound good". I've never used to be an apple fan, at least not in its raw, unadulterated state -- particularly because apples don't grow in PR (as far as I know), and by the time imported ones arrive they may be red, but not exactly delicious. Their mealy texture stuck with me, and I pretty much gave up eating them except in pies. Some time after I had this craving, Dave mentioned that it being apple season, we should venture out to an apple festival out in a town that's about an hour away. Aha! Apple season, you say?

I found this interesting, for two reasons: one, it has taken me forever to start to learn what's in season when; and two, having grown up in a place with virtually no seasons, I'd have assumed that my body would behave differently. After being here a while, however, I'm finding that I grow increasingly attuned to my natural surroundings. Not to be all cheesy, but I like that. It makes me feel like part of a process that goes back to time immemorial, of being aware of nature and what it can give you. And in a way it surprises me, because all these changes have been gradual, and now, years after moving here, I feel like I'm opening my eyes after having closed them for just a second and realizing I actually took a long nap. Look at me, craving apples in the fall. When did that happen?

I'll give in, and maybe make an apple pie this weekend for dessert. But for dinner, we're having arroz y habichuelas and bistec encebollado.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Nothing like the smell of pork to wake you up in the morning

So this past weekend was pernil weekend.

Prep started on Friday, when Dave came home with this hunka burnin' love:

20 lbs of bone-in, skin-on pork shoulder. He had to place a special order at Gartners Meats, a fantastic butcher shop here in Portland. They, in turn, got it from Carlton Farms, purveyor of healthy, rosy pigs to good restaurants all over Oregon. Our particular cut was gorgeous -- this pig led a good life. I ensured a good cooking session for Piggy here by surrounding him with the saints you see in the votive candles.

With the pig finally obtained, we turned to the seasoning. Pork shoulder can be a fairly bland-tasting cut on its own, so it needs some help. When it's 20 lbs, it needs some serious help.

We decided to use a two-pronged approach: stuff it with sofrito (left), and cover it with adobo (right). I have to confess that the sofrito looks less than stellar because I had made it previously, frozen it for later use, and re-heated it. It tasted good; not great, as with fresh sofrito, but I'll be damned if I'll make fresh sofrito every time I need some. (Recipes at the end of this post).

We started by stabbing holes into Piggy with a steak knife. These holes don't need to go all the way down to the bone, but should be a couple of inches deep. Into these holes you'll be stuffing your seasoning. I just used both ends of a spoon: the spoon itself to start puring the sofrito in, and the handle to gently tamp it down to make room for more. Eventually, you'll start to see it spill out from the hold, and that's when I stuck a slice of garlic in there. You are supposed to stuff it in there until you can't see it, but I left mine peeking out of the holes, so that I could keep track of which ones were filled already. As for the seasoning, sofrito was nice, but I think I'd like to use adobo next time because the flavor is more intense. The bottle of Tecate in the background is not part of the recipe, it's just there for the chef's enjoyment. The cell phone is there for the chef to call her mother and her friend, Elsie, back in PR, for last-minute questions. They've done this before, I haven't.

After stabbing and filling all sides:

our pig is ready to have his garlic secured and be massaged with adobo:

At this point, I placed Piggy in a roasting pan, covered it in plastic wrap, and refrigerated overnight. This bad boy needs time to marinate.

At 5:30 the next morning, we placed it in a 250 degree oven, tented it with foil, and stuck a thermometer in it. (Note: we put Piggy on a roasting rack, and in a roasting pan. For the love of God, don't forget to line the roasting pan with foil, like I did. Unless you like cleaning up a lot of fat, then by all means, forget.) The aim was to cook it low and slow, especially during the hours of 5:30 and 8:15 am, during which both chefs had gone back to bed and did not wish to run the risk of leaving a hotter oven unattended. The temperature was brought up, over time, to 350, then 370, and this cooking process went on for about 9 hours. The smell that permeated the house was unbelievable. Our landlord was outside doing yardwork, and he said he was drooling from the smell. Drooling in a good way.

Nine hours is a crazy-long time, but there's a reason. Bone-in pork shoulder is very fatty. That fat has to render, or else you'll be left with a thick slab of blubber and dry meat. To render this fat and have it permeate the meat and leave it soft, moist, succulent, and a host of other words that I find gross but are really what you're looking for in the end result, the cooking should be done at medium temperatures for a long time.

Once out friend reaches 140 degrees, we can untent it. Also, we can quickly remove it from the oven and pour out the juices, as these will make the inside of the oven humid and prevent the skin from crisping up. I'm told you can make gravy out of the brown bits and juices, but to be honest the juices were very very fatty, and I just couldn't see myself successfully making gravy out of it. If you're thinking you might want to give it a shot, then lining the pan in foil is not a good idea. But really, I'm telling you, it is.

At 180 degrees Piggy is done cooking, and we're ready to make some cracklin' out of that skin. I mean, that's the reason we got it skin-on, so we could make some awesome chicharrón, or pork rind, out of it. We blasted it up to 425 degrees for, say 10 minutes. The skin ends up rock-hard to the touch, but once you let the pernil rest you will see that the skin peels off easily. The adobo will have browned and hardened up in clumps, there will be a thin layer of flavorful fat underneath, and I promise you, you'll never have so easily looked heart disease in the eye and said, "Bring it on. Nothing matters now".

I'd like to say that I have a picture of the end result, before it was carved up and eaten. See, what happened was that we were in a hurry to leave, so we packed Piggy up and took it to a potluck. I figured I'd take a picture once we arrived. Well, we arrived, set Piggy down, and went to say hi to our friends. I then grabbed my camera and sauntered back to the table to find this:

You can get a bit of an idea of what the skin looks like from looking at the bone sticking out on the left. Dark, and looking like tanned hide. The picture is blurry because people were waiting to continue picking at Piggy and I had to be fast. You can see the slices of garlic that I stuck in there, and also the sofrito.

This thing was other-worldly. Everybody at the party went crazy over the pernil. I was a bit concerned, thinking that the fatty meat and fatty skin might turn some people off in its primitive, caveman appearance -- especially since Portlanders have a reputation for healthy living. But these people got in touch with their inner primeval hunter and chowed down. The meat was tender enough that slicing wasn't necessary, you could just pull it off with a fork. And if you were lucky, you'd geta piece that was speared with the sofrito and garlic. The combination of the soft-but-present seasoning in the meat was wonderfully countered with the intense saltiness and crunch of the skin. We received many compliments on Piggy. And we learned that while pernil is certainly something that takes time and effort, it's not difficult, and the results it yields are absolutely worth it. Especially that skin and meat mix -- that combo will make you wonder why anyone would want to be vegetarian. Not that there's anything wrong with that, it's just that I couldn't do it. I would think of Piggy, and weep.

Dave came up with the adobo recipe, which is why the measurements are precise.

36 cloves (half mashed up into a paste for the adobo in a mortar and pestle, the other half sliced to stick into the holes)
6 tbsp salt
6 tsp olive oil
6 tbsp vinegar (white or red wine will work)
3 tbsp ground pepper
4 tbsb oregano

I came up with the sofrito recipe, which is why the measurements are not precise.

2 bunches of cilantro
1 bunch of parsley
3 garlic cloves (or so)
1 red pepper
1 medium onion (or thereabouts)

This gets blended in a food processor until it becomes a paste, or as close as this will get to a paste. This recipe is for a big batch -- I then freeze it in ice cube trays to make it easier to use the sofrito once it's been frozen. For Piggy, I went through about 9 ice cubes of sofrito. I never add salt to my sofrito because I like to control the amount of salt I use right when I am cooking. For the sofrito I added to Piggy, I actually added a lot of salt. That's as close a measurement as I have, but for this application I would say add as much as you are comfortable with, then add more.

Sofrito's ingredients are usually a bit more interesting that this one's, but they are not easily found around here which is why I substitute. For example, usually instead of cilantro, which is the base, culantro is used. Culantro is a flat-leafed relative of cilantro and has a headier cilantro taste but with less of an edge. Its flavor profile is too strong to be eaten raw, like cilantro can be, so it is used mainly for cooking. Red and green peppers can be used, but a better flavor comes from ají dulce, or sweet peppers. I've never seen those here either. I guess it's time to start my own little garden.

Blog Action Day: Ways to make your daily life more green

Blog Action Day is an event of sorts, where a particular topic is chosen and bloggers are asked to participate by writing about it on one particular day. Today is the environment.

There's lots that could be said, I suppose, about the environment, but since I'm no expert on the subject I thought I could participate by talking about some of the ways I've incorporated green living into my daily life. And I stress simple because I am, by nature, lazy, and I have a suspicion that I'm not the only one. However, I've noticed that in the last few years I've become more aware of the waste I produce. Maybe it's that after a few years of living on your own and not having someone else take care of household needs, you get to see first-hand just how much goes into maintaining a household. By becoming more attuned to that, it's also made me more aware of other things I do in my daily life that are not household related that also generate waste. As I started to list them, it got to be a bit embarassing to see how disposable my life has become.

So below are some things I've started to do that are simple, but have generated noticeably less waste. Whereas I was throwing out garbage daily or every other day, I'm only filling my garbage can about twice a week.

Recycling, and not just cans: I have curbside recycling, which I know is a lot easier than having to do it in places (like, PR, I believe), where there is no such service and you have to take recycling out to designated spots yourself. Aside from cans, I recycle things like bottles and all other glass containers, plastic, egg cartons, cardboard boxes, cardboard packaging, the cardboard rolls that come with toilet paper and paper towels, magazines, and non-confidential mail. I separate them as I toss them, and once a week I set it all out on the curb. That alone is what's helped me dramatically reduce how much I send to the landfill as garbage.

Cut out bottled water as much as possible: I'll admit, I developed a bottled water habit. Even at home, even though our tap water tastes perfectly fine. I was buying bottled water for home consumption, and even though I recycled all the bottles, it still struck me just how many bottles I was using (not to mention spending money on something I can easily get for free.) I started drinking tap water at home, and I bought a water bottle to fill up for when I go out for a walk, or for use during car trips, that I fill at home before leaving. Sure, there are times when I just don't have the bottle with me and I'm in a situation where bottled water is my only option, and that's fine. I try to save the bottle and make sure it gets recycled. But I feel better knowing that a) I'm responsible for a little less disposability in this world, because I'm not supporting an industry that supplies us with so much pastic because of the high demand for it, and 2) I'm being more concientious, moneywise.

Buy less pre-packaged meals: As a natural follow-up to cutting out the bottled water habit, I've also been buying less and less pre-packaged foods at the supermarket. I stopped buying a lot of them some time ago, more for health and quality reasons than environmental concerns, especially now that I've actually learned how to cook, but I've found it can extend to things such as popcorn. I always just bought the microwaveable kind, but it's just as easy to make your own out of the kernels that are sold alone for stovetop or machine use. And if laziness is as much a part of your life as it is mine, here's a way to make popcorn kernels in the microwave. (Note: it calls for you to staple the bag, which I have been told is safe, but you can just as easily fold over the bag twice and it will keep the bag sealed too). Yes, yes, there is also waste involved in this microwave method, but it is less than the cardboard box and individual plastic wrapping that surrounds each bag. And less waste is not the only reason to do this - there are concerns that chemicals added to microwaveable popcorn (PFOA's, which are there for non-stick purposes) can be harmul to your health. Also, fresh just tastes better, and it's cheaper.

Bring my own utensils and plates to work: In an effort to save money, I try to bring my own breakfast and lunch to work. At my desk I keep a plate, a plastic cup, and my own silverware. By not using disposable utensils, I save myself the hassle of having to buy more and, of course, create less waste.

Bring your own mug when you get coffee: When I don't bring my own mug of coffee to work, I still bring the empty mug with me to the coffee shop. They deduct a whole 5 cents from the price, and I don't have to throw away cups that can't at least be recycled.

Wear a sweater: This obviously shouldn't apply to people in PR (and if it does, they're total masochists), but now with colder weather upon us I try to not jack of the thermostat. Rather, I keep it kind of low, and make sure to wear swaters and warmer clothes when I'm at home. As much as a nice warm PR day might seem appealing when outside it's cold and gray, I really don't need to be trying to recreate that temperature indoors.

Reuse as much as possible: In my opinion, ziploc bags are a fantastic invention that also doubles as environmentally evil. You use one bag and then toss it. Multiply that by a gazillion times over your lifetime, and that's a lot of non-biodegradeable plastic you're tossing. When I use them for storing foods that don't leave a mess, I save them to use again later. Plastic supermarket bags can be reused as garbage bags, which lessens the amount of garbage bags you have to buy.

Bring your own mags to the supermarket: Plastic shopping bags can come in handy sometimes, but they're an environmental blight. They don't biodegrade, so that bag you were just given in order to place your solitary tube of toothpaste in is going to be around forever. Really. I bought a few canvas bags and I take those with me to the store. Anyone who has tried to find a place to keep the countless plastic bags they try to save at home knows that they multiply like breeding rabbits. I have noticed a marked decrease in how many plastic bags I have to stuff aside somewhere. And not only is it kinder to the environment to use my own bags, but it's remarkably easier to carry bigger purchases -- you don't have thin plastic handles cutting into your hand, and since you can fit more items in one canvas bags, you're not juggling around a bunch of smaller ones that can sometimes break. And for you penny-pinchers, most supermarkets will give you a 3 cent credit per each bag you bring.

I mentioned using paper towels earlier, and I know that it's, like, Green Living 101 to cut those out. I have to admit that I like them much better than using rags, but my next step is to reduce my paper towel usage or eliminate it entirely.

There are more ideas here. Any more suggestions?

Wednesday, October 10, 2007


There's nothing quite like a tasty, juicy pernil, whic is simply a roasted pork shoulder. Unfortunately, it's hard to find the right cut of meat over in these parts, as pernil is made of bone-in pork shoulder and all I can find is boneless.

Dave inquired at a reputable butcher shop, and they are able to order in that cut from their purveyor. By Friday we'll have two bone-in pork shoulders, one of which we'll take to a large potluck we're attending on Saturday. The other will be great for homemade Cuban sandwiches. Now all I need to do is learn to bake the right kind of bread for cubanos, but that's beyond my abilities at this point.

We've never made a proper pernil before, and, frankly, I'm nervous. I want to do this pig right. Also, I want to show up at this party with a kick-ass PR dish, and be able to gloat about how fantastic our food is. Godspeed to us, and I'll try to document the pernil-making process for posterity. If it comes out well it will be a photojournalistic triumph. If not, it will probably be a cautionary tale of how not to cook a big ol' slab of pig.

Friday, September 28, 2007

A list of things I brought back with me from PR

A stack of books in Spanish

A six pack of Old Colony Uva

Two six-packs of Medalla Light (thanks, Abuelo! It looks like he reads this blog!)

Two bottles of Don Q Cristal

Eight quesitos

Note for next time: bring extra duffel bag so I can re-distribute weight in my suitcase and not go over the weight limit.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Style points

While I was writing my last post, I found myself using the terms Hispanic and Latino, which I don't really feel comfortable using in most cases. I use it, however, for lack of a better term for this group of people. Other terms seem awkward, or just as inaccurate. So until I come across something better, I will continue to use Hispanic and Latino, and will use them interchangeably.

Hispanic Heritage Month opens up a can of worms

A few weeks ago I wrote about the ever-pressing issue of what we of Latin American descent are supposed to be calling ourselves (and what we're supposed to be asking others to call us). Are we Hispanics? Are we Latinos? Do we really need a catch-all term?

With September 15 - October 15 being Hispanic Heritage Month, there has been more of a dialogue regarding, uh, Latino-ness. How nice to see a month devoted to all of us Latinos, where for those four precious weeks we are held up to the nation much like a show-and-tell session and discussed. So often, discussions about how integral a particular heritage is to this country's success are somewhat superficial. I walk into my local grocery store and see a big picture of Antonia Coello Novello, right there nest to the apples, reminding me that Latinos Are Important.

So I was surprised to see an article on about how being of Latin American descent in the US is a trickier, more complicated proposition than perhaps many Latinos might think. I was surprised to see certain points being made that I had tossed around in my own head but did not believe were also entertained by many others. Moreover, it made me ask some questions of myself, and how I view this whole issue of being a Hispanic in the USA and my relationship to the rest of the people lumped into that term.

Case in point: Suzanne Oboler, a professor of Puerto Rican and Latino Studies at John Jay College in New York, states that she does not believe that there is such a thing as a Latino identity. Nevermind what people outside of that group think about that -- what do Latinos themselves think about this? My first thought was that I do agree with this statement, but I also would have thought that people, say, who are Latino activists, would balk at this idea. What about Latino unity? What about la raza?

I don't believe in la raza. I believe that there are millions of us who share a similar colonizer. From her we obtained our language and some cultural idiosyncracies. But take one look at a map and you'll see that Latin America is really, really big. Top to bottom, side to side, the geographical landscape is vast and heterogeneous. Beaches. Mountains. Deserts. Rainforests. Life adapts to these different landscape and geographical traits. Indigenous populations in the Caribbean were not the same as in Central America, who were not the same as the ones in South America. Sure, there is cross-pollination: Taíno indians in the Caribbean are said to be descendants of indigenous peoples in the area now known as Venezuela. But those Venezuelan tribes became the Arawaks in the Caribbean, who then became the Caribs, and then came the Taínos. There's a lot of time and a lot of change in between that initial migration and the finished product. And that's just one small example.

Nowadays we just need to look at our cultures in their current incarnations to see that one label does not fit all. There are, say, some similarities in some of our foods, but I believe that is more often seen because of regional proximity than any kind of homogeneity across the Spanish-speaking Americas. People asking me if I had a lot of Mexican food in Puerto Rico, or even looking to me to be an arbiter of which local Mexican is the most authentic, will be greeted with the same answer: "Huh?" I may enjoy a hearty chimichanga at my local Mexican joint, and may recognize some of the flavor profiles, but not being from Mexico I could not tell you what's authentic; I can just tell you whether or not I like it.

A marketing executive cited in the article feels that there is indeed a Hispanic profile: "Those areas include interpersonal relationships (Latinos tend to emphasize family; individuality is not as important), perception of the future (the group is less driven toward goals), and spirituality (the group tends to be more fatalistic, more likely to say they have no control over their lives)." I find this argument simplistic and, frankly, more indicative of an attempt to find any similarities, any at all, in order to support a hypothesis (in this case "this will sell to Hispanics").

Another surprising statement came from a woman named Anna Rivas, who is from Colorado and the child of Mexican parents. She says that when asked where she is from, she replies, "'My parents are from Mexico.' And I don't say, 'I'm Hispanic or Latino, or I'm from Mexico,' because I'm not."

That one was a shocker to me. Not so much saying that she isn't from Mexico -- because, in fact, she is not -- but not identifying herself with her parents' ethnic background at all. But see, given what I wrote above, about not being so sure that there is a "Latino identity", why should I be surprised? This made me realize that I might subscribing to a double-standard: if I don't believe there is a single Latino identity, then why would it startle me to see that someone doesn't identify with any of it?

I think that it's not a double-standard, in the end, but another example of how none of this business is black-or-white. Here's what I still find surprising: Ms. Rivas is not the grandchild or great-grandchild of immigrants. Her own parents came from Mexico, and in one single generation any ties to the homeland seem to have been chopped off. I think of other groups in the US who countless generations after the first member of the family emigrated still feel the pull of their ancestral country's culture. Ms. Rivas doesn't expound on how this happened; perhaps her own parents decided she needed to assimilate to their new home, maybe it was her own choice, or maybe it wasn't a choice at all and it just turned out this way. Whether or not she sees herself as belonging to the larger group is not what strikes me so much, it's more the idea that a cultural link can be lost in the space of one generation.

So where does this leave Latinos in the US? I suspect we're all over the map on this: from the Latino Studies student, who may have visions of revolutionaries and la raza in his head, to the Puerto Rican who was born in New York and finds himself at a crossroads between hamburgers and arroz con pollo, to someone like Ms. Rivas who simply can't identify with her parents' home country -- nevermind identifying with the idea of being Hispanic, we're apparently all over the map. How do we start to understand each other's vastly different experiences? Just because we're not all in the same boat, does that mean that there can't be a certain level of unity? A certain level of camarederie, even if it's just predicated on the luck of conquistador's draw, that we ended up with a common backstory? I think the key here is to understand that we have not all had the same experience, that just because one person may still speak Spanish and eat rice and beans every day doesn't mean the person next to you is the same way. I think when we start to accept our differences (and to accept that we are, in fact different from each other -- this is something that is hard for many people to even acknowledge, especially those of us born and raised in Latin America, and I'd like to write about that later) hopefully it will be easier to see in which areas we do stand together.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Mmm, food

A good example of why I live in Portland, thousands of miles away from home as it may be.

I like food. A lot. I love it for how it tastes, how it makes you feel when you eat it, how it represents a place. PR is in some ways defined for me by the foods I had easy access to there. Mangoes are silky but sticky, and eating them fresh and whole (not cubed up into some kind of salsa or mixed into a smoothie) is an entirely decadent affair: you'll feel like a mess, but you'll be happy you got down and dirty. Quenepas, with the gooey, sweet pulp covering a pit small enough to fit in your mouth but large enough to choke you if you're not careful, make you feel like you're playing a dangerous game: one false move, and that stone will be going places you don't want it to go. Because you can often find them being sold by the side of the road, they are often eaten in the car. Watch out for those road bumps.

Guava, passionfruit, breadfruit, yucca, yam, sweet potato, recao, cilantro, my beloved plantain. I can find many of these over in these parts, although sometimes worse for wear after a long journey. When you know what they taste like in their own environment, fresh and ready for plucking, you have a completely different idea of what these foods can really be. In PR, they may sometimes be taken for granted because of their easy availability, but that changes once you actually take a bite. No matter how many times you may have tasted these foods, the minute you taste them you close your eyes and think "That's the stuff". And then you're reminded of how good you have it.

I have traveled to a few countries here and there, and I've found that many other places share the same relationship with food that Puerto Ricans have: respect for local ingredients, and very particular ideas on how best to treat and serve them. The US has been a bit of a different experience: it's not that nowhere in this country can you find people who love and respect food, as evidenced by the rabid discussion of what makes good barbeque, or the devotion some people show to making the best pie. I find this kind of attitude to be more regional, and not necessarily shared by the country at large. I have always argued that homogeneity of thought throughout a country as large as the US is near-impossible, and I think attitudes toward food certainly fall into that category. In many places, what is thought to be more convenient and fast trumps any other consideration -- and in the land of fast food chains, there is a particular of idea of what constitutes convenient and fast. I feel that this has led to people shying away from real food, and actually getting down to the business of dealing with it hands-on, and this has come at the expense of a more personal and fulfilling relationship with what we consume.

Portland has felt, especially in the last five years or so, as a little enclave that has not only avoided that point of view, but actively tried to eradicate it. The city is surrounded by working farms, and from it come meat, produce, dairy, wines, etc. It's a veritable bounty. And people here have certainly noticed this, judging by the many farmer's markets that can be found around town. It's easier here than in other places to become attuned to what is actually in season; it's so easy to forget, since many foods can be found year-round in the supermarkets regardless of whether they are in season locally (or anywhere else, for that matter). Some local chefs have noticed this, and what started as a town that had a few restaurants that recognized the idea of eating seasonally and locally has become a town that is developing a closer, hands-on relationship to food. Also, with a growing number of people moving here from other places, Portland has started to feel a bit more worldly. That combination has yielded some of the best restaurants I have ever had the pleasure to try. In fact, Le Pigeon, the one pictured in the articled I linked to above is among of my top 3 favorites anywhere, and Pok Pok, another restaurant mentioned, has items on the menu such as a curry soup and fish-sauce chicken wings that sometimes drift in front of my eyes at random moments. On my first visit to Le Pigeon, we sat at a counter that faces the kitchen. I ordered a pig's tail soup, and was tempted to pick up the tail and eat it right there; however, I felt a bit embarassed to do so in public (at home it would have been another story). The chef noticed, and urged me to go ahead and pick it up, because "that's the kind of joint this is". That's my kind of joint, too.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Washington Times editorial on statehood for PR

The piece can be found here.

I'm very interested in hearing opinions on this from all sides of the status spectrum. Personally, I feel that regardles of your position, this piece comes across as shockingly misinformed. Even for the Washington Times. (Insert cheeky wink here.)

One of the statements that jumped out at me the most was this line: The only complaint is that Puerto Rico has only a "resident commissioner" in Washington, who, like the representatives of the District of Columbia, Guam or American Samoa, cannot vote in Congress.

Is that truly the only complaint?

Really?! Really.

A conversation I had with someone at work this morning.

Her: So, how was your vacation?
Me: Good, I went back home to Puerto Rico.
Her: Oh, good! Did you get to eat a lot of Mexican food?
Me: Mexican food?!
Her: Yeah, Mexican food!
Me: Why Mexican food?
Her: Oh, Mexican, or whatever you guys eat down there!
Me: You mean, Puerto Rican food, since I was in Puerto Rico?
Her: Yeah!

I kept asking her why she said Mexican food, but I knew the answer. A few years ago this same person saw me bring a burrito to my desk at lunchtime and said "Oh, of course you'd be eating a burrito!" So I was well acquainted with her Hispanic=Mexican confusion.

The conversation did not end there, though.

Her: So did you see family?
Me: Yeah, I did. Unfortunately my grandmother was in the hospital, though.
Her: Oh, that's too bad. Did you know she was there beforehand?

At this point I explain that my grandmother has been ill for a while, and that a couple of days before I arrived she had to go to the hospital for a condition that is separate from her illness, but that has still kept her in the hospital for a couple of weeks. Because we work with health insurance, she asked if she has good coverage.

Me: Aside from my grandfather's insurance, she has Medicare.
Her: Medicare?!
Me: Yes, Medicare.
Her: Really? Medicare?
Me: Yes, Medicare.
Me: ....
Her: ...
Me: Puerto Ricans are US citizens.
Her: Really?!
Me: (busting out the history lesson) Puerto Ricans born in Puerto Rico have been granted US citizenship since 1917, through the Jones Act.
Her: Really?!
Me: Yes, really!

I finished by giving her a quick rundown of the relationship between our two esteemed countries, then walked away before I got trapped into another game of Really.

Maybe some years ago, I might have become upset at how little she knows. I have never expected anyone in the States to know the ins and outs of the PR-USA relationship -- that's hard enough even for Puerto Ricans, sometimes. But I do expect everyone to know three things: 1) That Puerto Rico is an island (and no, you can't drive here from there), 2) That it's in the Caribbean (not by Hawaii somewhere, no), and 3) that we're part of the US and citizens. I feel I should add a number 4: We are not Mexicans. Fact: many, many people are not Mexicans.

I've stopped getting upset about how little people know about an island that is actually a part of their country. But, much like I get upset with people at work or in retail who simply cannot say "I don't know" when I ask them a question, and instead make something up, I get upset with people who actually challenge me when I tell them something about my home country even though they clearly and by their own admission don't know anything about it. Yes, we have Medicare, and yes, we are citizens. You didn't know that: fine. You can't just ask me to tell you more about how that works; instead you have to be incredulous and refuse to believe me: not fine. I don't mean to make anyone feel like they can't ask me questions -- I am happy when people ask, because it shows people are interested and want to learn. However, I kindly request that they check the incredulous "really?!'s" at the door.

Monday, September 24, 2007

The end of the season for the Timbers and Islanders

On Sunday September 23rd, both the Timbers and the Islanders played Atlanta and Seattle, respectively, in the league semifinals. Both teams put up a fierce fight, but ultimately they lost and are out of the running.

I was in PR on the day that the Islanders played against Montreal and won, therefore passing from the quarterfinals to the semifinals. I enjoyed seeing the team get press coverage, as PR is more enamored with beisbol than futbol. I was, unfortunately, not able to make the game. But I did attend the Timbers match against Atlanta and even though we lost, the game was intense and the fans were loud and plentiful. During most previous matches, the only section in the park where people stand and clap and cheer loudly is where the Timbers Army sits, but last night more than half the park stood and clapped along to the chants the Army was singing. It was great to finally feel that people were throwing aside inhibitions (or general laziness) and getting loud and raucous. Sometimes I feel that Portland is a little too laid back, and showing a lot of excitement and exuberance just isn't part of this town's personality. Seeing even soccer moms get up and yell at the referees was pretty cool to watch. And, according to today's Oregonian, "Atlanta coach Jason Smith said the 11,789 spectators that filled the stadium Sunday were so loud that he gave up trying to shout instructions to his players from the sidelines."

The game ended 0-0, and went into extra time. No one scored then, either, so the next step was to go to penalty kicks to force a decision. Our much-loved goalkeeper didn't keep out enough goals, so Atlanta won. Because my old camera (old=3 years old; I shake my fist at you, technology) crapped out on me I couldn't take pictures of my own, so I thought I'd post two pictures taken by a fellow Army member that captured both the euphoria during the game and the dissapointment of the ending. Her pictures were better than anything I could have taken, anyway.

The Timbers Army:

Our goalkeeper, Josh Wicks, after the match:

More of Allison's pictures at

Thursday, September 6, 2007

The long goodbye

The act of saying goodbye, or despedida, has been constantly present in my life. As the child of divorced parents who lived thousands of miles apart, I spent my childhood saying goodbye to one in order to be able to greet the other. I lived with my mother, and when the moment came to get on a plane to see my father, I knew I'd miss her. And I did indeed miss her, but I was also happy to see my dad. When it came time to go back home, leaving someone whom I managed to see only for a few days a year, I dealt with the conflicting emotions of being sad to leave one and happy to see the other.

Given this childhood game of Pong, it would have been natural to not want to experience despedidas again as long as I could help it. But even through this I knew that when I grew up, I wanted to travel -- and not just travel, but live in different places. Spending a week somewhere just didn't seem like enough to me; how would I know how life really was in other places if I didn't commit to the experience and see a city through the eyes of someone who lives through the good, the bad, and the ugly of a place? So when I went to college, I went off to New York.

By then I also had a younger sister who was young enough to have a hard time understanding these comings and goings. Goodbyes at this stage were no longer bittersweet, but heartwrenching affairs with tears and assurances that we would see each other again soon. Which we did -- it's not like New York is a world away -- but extended absences were nonetheless difficult.

By the time I graduated from college, I was fairly certain that I'd be making my life in the US. Then I got happy feet, and decided I wanted to leave New York. Rather than choosing another East Coast city, which would be as close to PR as I could get within the US, I headed off to the West Coast. In other words, a longer flight and much more expensive plane ticket away.

It's not that I was making these decisions on a whim. Well, to be honest, it's a lot easier to be nomadic when you're still relatively responsibilty-free, and the world has yet to put the fear of God in you. But I had at least some actual reasons other than wanderlust: having been accepted to a great school, the knowledge that my job prospects back home were not the same as in the mainland, a general feeling that being on my own was starting to become integral to who I was becoming. I say "general feeling" on that last one because I certainly wasn't thinking in those terms when I was 22 years old, but I had that idea knocking around inside my brain and driving my choices.

I moved to Florida in 2004 as a way to get back to that middle ground I had in NY, where I was still on my own but close to home. I said goodbye to a town I loved in order to try to recapture something I had in the past, and probably took for granted. When that didn't work out, saying goodbye to that hope was a blow, but I was also looking forward to coming back to Portland; there I had a settled life, with a job and good friends.

Nowadays I try -- and so far have succeeded -- to get back home once a year. In my NY and FL days it was more often than that, but I suppose it's much better than other people get. Very often I make these trips home by myself because it's cost-prohibitive for Dave and I to both go. Much like when I was a kid, traveling between my mom and dad, saying goodbye to Dave is bittersweet. And even more so is the despedida when I come back to Portland.

But something new has been happening in the last few years that has started to change the dynamic of my now-familiar hello-goodbye ritual. Through no fault of my own, and without my permission, the life I have come to expect to step into when I go back home has been changing with every visit. Children get older and get actual lives. The landscape changes with every new road and neighborhood that is built in areas that had nothing before. My once-vivacious and unstoppable grandmother aged and became ill. Other family members have real-life problems to contend with. That is not how it used to be, back when I came home every few months and everything was the same as when I lived there. So now the question is not just how will I deal with the despedida, but also what will I find upon my arrival?

A year has not gone by in which I have not seen the inside of an airport. Between the shuttle flights of my childhood and the bouncing around of my adulthood, I've seen my fair share. One of my favorite things to do while I sit at a gate, or wait at a security checkpoint, is watch people as they say goodbye to each other. How they stay chat casually but somewhat tensely, close together until the last possible minute, until only the traveler is allowed to move on. If others are allowed into the gate, how they furtively watch the clock as it moves towards boarding time. How they hug, sometimes cry, sometimes remain dry-eyed and making a visible effort to remain so. Some people will hold their loved one's face and wish them a safe flight, but it's clear that they probably want to say so much more than that. Hell, sometimes you can tell they actually want to say goodbye. But no matter what, it's never an every-day affair. And during the never-ending wait for my luggage when I arrive, watching people find each other and squeal with happiness, or watching those who are alone step out into the street and look around hesitantly, the different aspects of arrivals carry their own stories too.

It all reminds me that despedidas are not just the story of my life, but a plain old fact of life. You can't get away without saying goodbye to something or someone in your life at least once. That traveler, the one in the middle who knows what they're leaving and may or may not know what they're heading towards, will one day be you. But it's the greeting, whether it be of people on the other side, or a new city, or a new stage in your life, that puts those goodbyes in perspective. I have never been able to say goodbye without also eagerly expecting what's on the other side. If I didn't, I suspect I would have given up a long time ago.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

No autographs, please

In 2004 Dave and I spent a month in Europe, wandering about with too-small duffel bags and very large memory cards in our camera. Two of my pictures from that vacation were chosen for an online travel guide,, to accompany blurbs on Barceloneta (a coastal area in Barcelona, not the town in PR!) and the San Siro stadium in Milan. The pictures should appear on the right hand side of the page.

They're not paying me or anything - it's all for the love of travel, photography, and 15 minutes of lukewarm fame.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Honey, I'm home!

In two weeks, I'm heading to PR for a much needed week of family and relaxation time. Sometimes I'm not exactly sure that American Airlines has delivered me to San Juan, but there are certain telltale signs that I can look for after my arrival (and sometimes even before) to know that, indeed, I made it to my intended destination.

If at least one of my fellow passengers is a woman sporting a dubi-dubi, I know I'm probably headed to PR.

If on my way to baggage claim at the Luis Muñoz Marín airport I see more people holding signs bearing the logo of a resort than actual passengers, I know I'm in PR.

If I exit the terminal and walk right into humidity so thick that it bounces me back a couple of feet, I know I'm in PR.

If I get in my mom's car and head straight into a traffic jam, I know I'm in PR.

If during the drive away from the airport I let out a sigh of contented relief, I know I'm in PR.

If I immediately develop a craving for fried fish and arepas from Los Pescadores, I know I'm in PR.

If I find myself actually craving Medalla Light, I know I'm in PR.

If I'm stepping into a panadería and find myself buying a dozen quesitos and a cuban sandwich the size of my head, and seriously consider eating them all myself, I know I'm in PR.

If it's 90 degrees and I'm having café con leche, and thinking about asopao for dinner, I know I'm in PR.

If during the ride to the airport I have to hold my breath so I won't cry, I know I'm leaving PR.

How do you know if you're in PR? Or, how do you know you are back home, wherever you're from?

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Timbers and Islanders

Portland has a great soccer team, the Timbers, and I've been attending their matches with my husband, Dave, for a few years now. They're always a lot of fun, especially if you sit in the Timbers army section; they bring it with an assortment of trumpets, drums, banners, and top-of-your-lungs singing. They are a very fun and open group that has grown exponentially over the years and I love sitting with them.

Puerto Rico's soccer team, the Islanders, are in the same league as the Timbers, so they play against each other twice during the regular season. One game is in Portland, the other in Bayamón. The Islanders first played during the 2004 season and I attended the game that was played in Portland. There were a few Puerto Ricans in attendance, judging by the random t-shirts featuring the PR flag that I saw on various fans. I decided not to sit with the Timbers Army, leaving Dave to join his friends in chanting against the Islanders. I just didn't have the heart to cheer against them even if I am a Timbers fan -- not to mention that I also root for the Islanders to win and succeed. In 2005 we missed the Timbers vs Islanders games because we were in Florida, but in 2006 we were back in Portland and were able to attend. This time I sat with the Army, although with the same misgivings that kept me away in 2004.

By halftime, I was feeling like a complete traitor. Clearly people were going to root against the Islanders, but sitting in such a vocal section made me feel like I was no longer straddling the line between my two homes. I was making a choice that I did not feel comfortable making. Dave tried to talk me into staying, because he enjoys it when I come to games with him, but he understood that I was feeling out of place. The last straw came when someone, out of a sense of extreme exuberance just as much as ignorance, yelled out something about "go back to your shacks".

I turned to Dave and said, "I'm leaving." At the same time, Dave was turning around to face the guy, who seemed to be all of 19 years old. Dave is 6'5" and when he wants to, he can look just as warm and inviting as a Mack truck barreling towards you. That look, as well as a "hey, man, knock that off", was enough to get the kid to apologize profusely. He in no way represented the Timbers Army as a whole, but I decided it was time to go sit elsewhere anyway for the rest of the game.

By the end of the match I had met a couple of Puerto Ricans and did manage to make plans to get together with them a few weeks later, which was a nice way to end the night. But later on, when Dave mentioned to another Timbers fan that I had decided to sit elsewhere for Timbers-Islanders games because of my divided loyalties, the person said "Well, you live in Portland now". In other words, I'm supposed to root for the local team and forget about any others. My immediate reaction was to say "If you moved to another city, would you forget about the Timbers?" That this had not occured to this person really surprised me. I assumed that even if they had never lived anywhere except their hometown, people would understand that living away from where one grew up means that sometimes you are torn in different ways between your old home and your new one. I suppose making that mental leap is not that easy. Maybe seeing someone with loyalties that lie in other places makes some people feel like their own home is not being afforded the respect they think it deserves. Regardless, it made the phrase "You're in America now" a lot more personal than I ever thought it would be.

Monday, August 20, 2007

The old and the new

In looking through Tom Lehman's pictures of PR in the 40's and 50's, I realized that some of these images were, in a way, familiar. Not because I had seen them in person, but because they are prominent in Puerto Rican art.

When country life is portrayed in art, it often has an air of romanticism. Rustic life can seem like it can bring back color to your cheeks, to promote vim and vigor. The reality can be much different. The depiction of the jíbaro in Puerto Rican art can sometimes lean towards that tendency, but in these pictures I saw that our artists oftentimes came much closer to reality than one may think. Below are some comparisons between pictures from Lehman's collection, and works of art by Puerto Rican artists.

Left: Rafael Tufiño, Cortador de caña, 1951

Right: Amolando, undated

Left: Rafael Tufiño, Goyita, 1953

Right: Woman with hoe, 1944-1947

Left: Rafael Tufiño, Vita cola, 1961

Right: Girl in pink dress in front of house, 1950's

The images in the paintings may seem somewhat nostalgic to a boricua, because the evoke another time and another way of life - one that our grandparents may still tell stories about. But a closer look reveals a kinship with reality which may be a bit softened by memory and aesthetics, but still bears resemblance to what life really looked like. The man in Amolando could be the same man as in Cortador de caña; not only is the job the same, but so are the surroundings, the attire, and the sense in both images of back-breaking work. Goyita (who is actually Tufiño's mother) shares the same skin color and look of determination as the Woman in Woman with hoe. Skin color in PR is varied, and the issues faced by those with dark skin were not only very close to Tufiño's experience, they were ones he chose to explore in his works. The girls standing in front of wooden houses in the last images share a similar sense of shyness mixed with curiosity as well as a similar background.

All three paintings above were done by Rafael Tufiño. I didn't concentrate on his works solely because they're good, but because his seemed to be the most available. It was disappointingly difficult to find a good number of images of Puerto Rican art on the internet, especially by those who worked in the earlier part of the 20th century. Many artists are referenced, as are their works, but not many images are available. Even images of works by Francisco Oller, PR's pre-eminent artist and close friend of the likes of Camille Pissarro and Paul Cezanne, are in short supply. Oller is a painter who should be more recognized internationally, but if we don't work harder to make sure our talent shines, he will remain a footnote in the biographies of his friends.

I know that part of the sadness that the photos in Lehman's collection may evoke is a sense of loss, that not only are some of the faces and customs disappearing, but also some of our landscapes. But some of them should also serve as reminders of things we should never return to, such as the poverty of slums like El Fanguito:

But in order to show that in some way we still have the island our antepasados knew, and to perhaps show that we need to fight to preserve what is left, I would like to compare a couple of pictures I took recently to the Lehman images.

Left: Entrance to Guanica Bay, 1950's
Right: Beach, Aguadilla lighthouse, 2005

One thing we all lament is the encroachment of development on our coastline. Although we may have to search for clear coastline more than our ancestors did, we still have managed to keep some areas free of development.

Left: New hilltop house with garden and view, 1950's
Right: Casita en Moca, 2005

Just as our coastline is not all lost to the Marriots and the Hiltons, our countryside and its dwellings are not all lost to new cookie-cutter developments sprawling into once-green and lush landscape. We're more packed in, even out in the countryside, but we can still enjoy views that were also enjoyed by abuelo and abuela. Although the power cables are indeed not part of the bucolic landcascape of yore!

Left: El Morro and walls of the fort, 1950's

Right: El Morro, 2005

Lastly, we still have El Morro to protect us from pirates.

PR in the 1940's and 1950's

Tom Lehman is the son of a Mennonite missionary couple who lived in PR in the 1950's. He has amassed an extensive collection of pictures taken by his parents and other missionaries during the time they lived on the island. As his collection became more well-known, others have contributed their own pictures and what has emerged is a fascinating and moving account of life in PR. Many pictures taken at the time are in black and white, but these are in color; they capture a way of life that is all but gone, but still informs a lot of our culture. Historically speaking, not very much time has passed at all, and yet the difference just a handful of decades has made is astounding. These pictures are not to be missed.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Say what?

There's a series of podcasts called Quick and Dirty Tips, and I've been listening to one in particular dedicated to grammar. A recent topic touched on idioms, or phrases that, when taken literally, don't make any sense, but their meaning becomes understood through common usage. The example given in the podcast was "He is feeling under the weather". If you were to think of what "under the weather" means, literally, you might picture someone standing under a cloud of rain. But English speakers understand that it means that the person isn't feeling well. Some idioms have traceable origins, others are more obscure and are a bit more traceable. Still others are so strange that it's hard to even venture a guess as to how they could have possibly come into usage.

While there are many idioms of varying degrees of obscurity in the English language (ie, "between a rock and a hard place", "burn the midnight oil", "shoot the breeze"), I believe Spanish idioms - or as they are called in Spanish, dichos - may have an more colorful edge. Some examples of Puerto Rican dichos:

Más jala'o que un timbre de guagua
Literal translation: More pulled than a bus's bell
Sample sentence: I am so hungry that I am más jala'o que un timbre de guagua
This is a complicated one if you don't know the meaning of the term jala'o. First of all, it refers to the word halado, which, if you know a bit of Spanish, does not have an aspirated "j" sound (how the "h" sounds in English) because the letter H is silent. That's a somewhat common mispronounciation in PR, I find: to aspirate the "h" at the beginning of some words. We also tend to drop the -ado suffix and pronounce it "a'o", which sounds something like "a-u". People know it's wrong, but I suppose it's part of our accent. In any case, to feel jala'o is to feel so hungry that you feel the pit of your stomach start to sink, and is usually the precursor to hunger-induced nausea. So if you feel "pulled" then you can see where the dicho originated -- probably some poor soul who was starving while riding the bus, and in a particularly poetic moment was able to identify with the slacked and often-yanked cable of a bus bell. Also note that there is even a proper pronounciation for this entire idiom: you would never hear someone say "más halado que un timbre de guagua", rather, the words run together ("má' jala'o queun timbre'e guagua"). To say it properly would sound downright prissy. A proper Puerto Rican has nothing but disdain for the letters S and D.

Por un tubo y siete llaves
Literal translation: through a tube and seven faucets
Sample sentence: Lindsay Lohan has DUI's por un tubo y siete llaves
This idiom seeks to convey the image of something happening copiously. Again, with this one, once you know the meaning, you can understand the imagery. but unlike the previous dicho, I'm having a hard time imagining the moment the phrase was born. How many times do you find yourself in a situation where you are faced with seven faucets? And why seven, in particular? I suppose a young man could have been showering after gym class (or maybe he was in prison -- we need to keep our minds open here), marvelled at how one tube could feed so many faucets, and his inner philosopher emerged. In any case, this one makes me laugh because it reminds me of a day in my 5th grade English class where the teacher was asking us to come up with idioms, and my classmate Rafael spat out "by a tube and seven keys!" He said keys because the word llave means both faucet and key, and I'm guessing he had not yet deciphered what the phrase alluded to. Okay, maybe you had to be there.

Poner un huevo
Literal translation: Lay an egg
Sample sentence: This document cannot have any mistakes, so you can't poner un huevo.
How did "lay an egg" become synonymous with making a mistake? Laying eggs is natural, it's what chickens are supposed to do. A related dicho is meter la pata, which means to put in a leg. What? I don't get it; I can't even start to imagine how these were coined. Perhaps I don't want to let my mind go there, even if it could.

No se pierde un bautizo de muñecas
Literal meaning: He/she doesn't even miss a doll's baptism
Sample sentence: I was reading a copy of The Wall Street Journal, and I saw a picture of Paris Hilton hobnobbing with Alan Greenspan -- she'll go to any event, she won't even miss un bautizo de muñecas.
So what is a doll's baptism, you ask? I'll tell you. Just like little girls in the US, for example, will set up a tea party with their dolls, in PR girls used to baptize them. We're not just talking about sprinkling some water on their heads and calling it a day. They'd round them up, perhaps dress them up in white dresses, invite friends and family, and pretend to have a baptism. Someone would play the role of the priest, and I'm pretty sure the only "parent" present with the doll was the little girl herself. Single moms, perhaps? Scandalous. My neighbor Jenny did one, and in typical Jenny fashion the event was a blowout. Lots of neigbors came, the dolls were impeccable, and her brother Chago approximated a priest's garb and baptized the dolls. Other neighborhood girls brought their dolls too, to share in the beautiful moment, but Jenny's dolls were the stars of the show. In fact, her mother organized a doll beauty pageant and I actually had a role in this: I was to present the winner with her prize, which was a bottle of roll-on Avon perfume. The winner was - you guessed it! - Jenny's doll. Punch and cookies were served afterwards, and everyone agreed it was a beautiful ceremony.

Mas pela'o que el culo de un mono
Literal translation: More skinned than a monkey's ass
Sample sentence: Until payday, I am más pela'o que el culo de un mono.
The sample sentence should have shed some light onto the meaning of this saying: it means to be broke. Pela'o (pelado) technically means "skinned" and in our vernacular it means to not have any money. As far as pela'o goes, I can see the origin of the term (even more than I can understand how "broke" became English vernacular for the same thing). But the brilliance of this idiom is the introduction of a monkey's ass. If we follow the same technique of unlocking the origin of a saying by imagining what the person must have been doing in order to reach such an epiphany, then much fun can be had with this saying. And even if you don't care to think about monkey's asses, comparing anything to monkey's asses is just funny. Admit it.

Let's hear some other strange dichos, either in Spanish or in any other language!

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Aunque partiré muy lejos, algún día volveré

Deja de llorar chiquilla
Deja de llorar mi amor
Aunque partiré muy lejos
Algún día volveré por ti mi amor

Te tengo que dejar
Mi barco zarpará
Me duele el corazón
Más tengo que partir

La vida fue muy cruel
Borrando nuestro ayer
Contigo fui feliz
Jamás te olvidare.

--Deja de llorar

I've been hooked on watching The Sopranos on DVD for a few weeks now. Up till then, I'd only seen random episodes of the show, and now I'm committed to powering through the entire series.

Today I was watching a couple of episodes from Season Three - "Amour Fou" and "An Army of One". I found myself strangely mirroring some of the characters. For example, in Amour Fou, Carmela Soprano finds herself crying at the drop of a hat. The first time they show her crying, she's with her daughter Meadow at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She comes across a Renaissance-era painting that she finds so beautiful, it makes her cry. I was an art history major in college, and although I've not done much in the field since I graduated, I've kept my interest in art alive; the Italian Renaissance is one of my favorite eras. How nice, I thought, she found a painting that moved her to tears. I've been there. Later, however, she's watching a maudlin commercial where the narrator is waxing poetic about man's best friend. Cute dogs are panned-and-scanned in slow motion, and Carmela starts to tear up. In the same serious baritone, the narrator identifies it as a Pedigree dog food commercial, and suddenly the spell is broken. "What's wrong with me?", Carmela says to herself as she shakes her head and gets up from the couch. I laughed, because recently I found myself moved to tears by an ASPCA commercial with lots of slo-mo scenes of doggies and kitties. Carmela, I feel ya.

I watched the rest of the episode and moved on to "An Army of One". In this one, a young man who is close to the Sopranos is killed. Grief, guilt, and tension are very high. After the funeral, friends and family congregate at their usual Italian restaurant. Uncle Junior is shown at a remote table, singing along while someone else plays guitar. He's got a great voice, and soon the guests are asking him to sing for them. He complies, and begins to sing, in Italian, a heartfelt song about ungrateful hearts.

Everything settles down to a quiet stillness as Uncle Junior sings his heart out. In PR we would call this kind of song corta-venas - vein-slashing. Macabre, yes, but it captures the feeling of lovelorn despair that apparently is not limited to old-timey ballads in Spanish. All the guests are Italian - some having been born there, others were at least second-generation - and in their eyes, glazed over and staring into the general distance, you can see their thoughts are now elsewhere. Some were even tearing up. In a moment of sadness and personal loss, it seems amazing to me that people instinctively turn to things that remind them of home. Whether it be their actual home or ancestral, it's almost like the sounds and tastes of our culture are imprinted in our DNA. They come to our rescue when we need them by helping us bond with others, and comforting us with good memories. The spell was not even broken when Meadow, all giggly-drunk, starts to throw pieces of bread in Uncle Junior's direction. Her father chased her down, but everyone else remained in tune to their nostalgic reverie.

Even I teared up (this time for a reason!), because although I'm not Italian, I recognized what was happening. And as I thought about how universal that scene was, so recognized by people whose home is elsewhere, the sound of Junior singing faded away and other songs started playing. A French ballad, Parlez-moi d'amour, and then a bolero called La enramada - both songs also about ungrateful hearts. The themes echoed each other, but the digression into other languages came together with how the scene was affecting me. Either I had read the show's mind or it had read mine.

*Aunque partiré muy lejos, algún día volveré - Although I've gone far away, one day I will return