Mexican Almuerzo in New England

In 1999 I relocated from Miami to Hartford, Connecticut for a university job teaching creative writing. It was a confusing and lonely time filled with longing for my home-city, much the same way my parents longed for their Cuban homeland. I refer to those years in Hartford as the “exile from my exile.” Fortunately, a wonderful Mexican-American family befriended me. Though they weren’t Cuban, they became my surrogate “familia.” We shared a sense of displacement and a longing for our respective “homes.” This poem is in homage to them and their matriarch, Marina.

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Word is praise for Marina, up past 3:00 a.m. the night before her flight, preparing and packing the platos tradicionales she’s now heating up in the oven while the tortillas steam like full moons on the stovetop. Dish by dish she tries to recreate Mexico in her son’s New England kitchen, taste-testing el mole from the pot, stirring everything: el chorizo-con-papas, el picadillo, el guacamole. The spirals of her stirs match the spirals in her eyes, the scented steam coils around her like incense, suffusing the air with her folklore. She loves Alfredo, as she loves all her sons, as she loves all things: seashells, cacti, plumes, artichokes. Her hand waves us to circle around the kitchen island, where she demonstrates how to fold tacos for the gringo guests, explaining what is hot and what is not, trying to describe tastes with English words she cannot savor. As we eat, she apologizes: not as good as at home, pero bueno. . . It is the best she can do in this strange kitchen which Sele has tried to disguise with papel picado banners of colored tissue paper displaying our names in piñata pink, maíz yellow, and Guadalupe green–strung across the lintels of the patio filled with talk of an early spring and do you remembers that leave an after-taste even the flan and café negro don’t cleanse. Marina has finished. She sleeps in the guest room while Alfredo’s paintings confess in the living room, while the papier-mâché skeletons giggle on the shelves, and shadows lean on the porch with rain about to fall. Tomorrow our names will be taken down and Marina will leave with her empty clay pots, feeling as she feels all things: velvet, branches, honey, stones. Feeling what we all feel: home is a forgotten recipe, a spice we can find nowhere, a taste we can never reproduce, exactly.