The Prince of Los Cocuyos Excerpt: San Giving Day

“What’s that?” Papá asked when Abuela set the pumpkin pie on the table. “I don’t know…” Abuela shrugged and looked to me for an answer. “Pumpkin pie,” I said proudly to blank faces at the table. “Calabaza,” I translated after realizing I might as well have said supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. “¿Calabaza?” tía Mirta shouted incredulously. “Pero that’s for eating when you have ulcers and diarrhea, not a dessert. Cómo inventan los americanos,” she chuckled sarcastically. I wanted to smash the pie in her face, but instead I brought the box from the kitchen to show her it was a legitimate dessert. “Poom-quin pee-eh?” tío Regino read out loud, and the entire table burst out laughing. I hadn’t realized that pie is exactly how foot is spelled in Spanish. A calabaza foot—that’s what was for dessert. Not what I had in mind. “Qué va, there must be something else, no?” tío Regino petitioned, and tía Ofelia pranced in showing off her flan and set it on the table. Everyone began oohing and aahing. A creamy custard floating in a pool of caramelized sugar or an ulcer-curing pie? It was no competition.

image012-1

No one touched the pumpkin foot, except me. I cut a huge slice and dug in. To my surprise, it tasted musty and earthy, just how I imagined the flavor of the color brown would be, though I couldn’t admit it. Instead I went on faking my pleasure—“Yum! Delicious”— hoping to tempt others into giving the pie a try. But no one did, except Caco, who could never resist an opportunity to ridicule me. He reached over with his spoon and scooped a chunk off my plate and into his mouth. “Gross! Yuck!” He grimaced and began spitting out the pie. In a flash I reached over to his plate with my spoon and mushed together his chewed-up pie with his slice of flan. We were heading for an all-out food fight, but Mamá put an end to it. “¡Basta! Enough, it’s San Giving Day, por Dios Santo.”

After dessert, Abuela made three rounds of Cuban coffee. Tío Berto and Abuelo moved the domino tables into the Florida room and played with Mauricio and Regino, slamming dominos and shots of rum on the table. “What’s this, a funeral? Por favor, a little música, maestro,” tío Berto requested, and Papá complied. He turned on the stereo system and put in Hoy cómo ayer, his favorite eight-track tape with eight billion songs from their days in Cuba. The crescendo began and Minervino took his butter knife and tapped out a matching beat on his beer bottle. Tío Berto grabbed a cheese grater from the kitchen and began scraping it with a spoon, playing it like a güiro. With that, cousin Danita began one-two-threeing to a conga as she served cuba libres for the men and crème de menthe for the ladies, her enormous, heart-shaped butt jiggling left and right as if it had a mind of its own. Inspired by her moves and a little too much rum, tío Mauricio took Mirta by the waist and before you could say happy San Giving, there was a conga line twenty Cubans long circling the domino players around the Florida sunroom.

When the conga finished, the line broke up into couples dancing salsa while I sat sulking on the sofa. You can’t teach old Cubans new tricks, I thought, watching the shuffle of their feet. There seemed to be no order to their steps, no discernible pattern to the chaos of their swaying hips and jutting shoulders. And yet there was something absolutely perfect and complete, even beautiful, about them, dancing as easily as they could talk, walk, breathe. “Ven, I’ll show you,” Mamá insisted, pulling me by my hand, trying to get me to dance with her. “No, no, Mamá, yo no sé—I don’t know how,” I protested. “¡Caramba! You’re Cuban, aren’t you? It’s in your blood, mi’jo, you’ll see. ¡Ándale! Get up!” she demanded, yanking me off of the sofa and onto the floor. She put her arm around my waist and my hand on her shoulder, leading me through the basic one-two and back. Turn. “More hip, more shoulder,” she spoke into my ear while pushing my body left and right. “Yes, like that . . . así . . . bien . . . muy bien,” she complimented me. “Acuérdate, even though you were born in España, you were made in Cuba—your soul is Cuban,” she said, reminding me—yet again—that I was conceived in Cuba seven months before she headed for Spain with me in her womb.

As I began picking up the rhythm, Abuela dashed into the room twirling a dishcloth above her heard and demanding, “¡Silencio! ¡Silencio, por favor!” Papá turned down the music and the crowd froze waiting for her next words. “Tío Rigoberto just called—he said he heard from Ramoncito that my sister Ileana got out—with the whole familia!” she announced, her voice cracking as she wiped her eyes with the dishcloth and continued: “They’re in España waiting to get las visas. In a month más o menos, they will be here! ¡Qué emoción!” She didn’t need to explain much more. It was a journey they all knew—had all taken just a few years before. A journey I didn’t know, having arrived in America when I was only forty-five days old. But over the years I had heard the stories they always told in low voices and with teary eyes, reliving the plane lifting above the streets, the palm trees, the rooftops of their homes and country they might never see again, flying to some part of the world they’d never seen before. One suitcase, packed mostly with photographs and keepsakes; no more than a few dollars in their pocket; and a whole lot of esperanza. That’s what the Pilgrims must have felt like, more or less, I imagined. They had left England in search of a new life too, full of hope and courage, a scary journey ahead of them. Maybe my family didn’t know anything about turkey or yams or pumpkin pie, but they were a lot more like the Pilgrims than I had realized.

09.30.14 by Richard Blanco