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Monday, April 22, 2024

Barriga llena, corazón contento: To curb feelings of alienation, Latin Americans turn to the palate

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Mi país aún vive en mi alma. Existe en las palmas de plátano y en la masa entre los dedos de mi mamá. 

This experience is true for many Hispanic and Latin American migrants today. Naturally, nostalgic hearts seek refuge from estrangement in tradition and food. 

My parents and I moved from Venezuela in December 2008, leaving behind the bulk of our family thousands of miles across the Caribbean. Weekly family gatherings were exchanged by lengthy, hours-long WhatsApp calls. Nevertheless, my immediate family cradled our culture closely while adapting to America. We paid homage to our roots in different ways.

My mother would gain infamy for her desayunos criollos, a Sunday morning breakfast tradition dubbed “El Especial De La Casa.” A plate consisting of arepas with eggs, queso blanco, caraotas, aguacate and a tomatada recipe passed down from my great-grandmother. Sometimes she would spoil us, adding a side of shredded beef. Hearty, filling and delicious — a meal made to prepare us properly for a midafternoon weekend nap. 

My father has always been musically inclined. I think of him in a barn surrounded by men manning a grill, his calloused fingers strumming the four strings of his cuatro. Hymns of Venezuelan folk music would follow with lively tales of “Caballo Viejo'' and “La Pena Del Becerrero'' accompanying our meal. 

These familia rituals foster a sense of cultural kinship tying us back to our birthplace and heritage. They help us ground our personhood in spite of time and distance. Today, as a Hispanic student living in Gainesville, my life consists of pseudo-religious as well as biweekly visits to Mi Apa and Flaco’s. However, despite the ease and comfort evoked by Hispanic fast food, nothing beats la comida casera.

Plantando semillas en tierra nueva 

María Alvarez, a 77-year-old retiree born in the Dominican Republic, rents a garden plot in Gainesville, Florida. The 12-by-25 foot plot is quartered toward the back of a large field at the UF Organic Gardens Cooperative, located at 2617 SW 23rd Terrace. She ripped out weeds, overgrown from months of summer sun, from her garden by bundles loading them into a wheelbarrow before repeating the act. She looked up at me from under her wide-brimmed, sun hat and told me she had been living in the U.S. for over 30 years. 

I thought to myself: ya debe estar acostumbrada. 

David Turull, a 36-year-old Spaniard, shared the plot with Alvarez and assisted her in the weeding efforts. When the pair filled up the wheelbarrow Turull would wheel the weeds to the compost yard. 

We passed a row of narrow-trunked trees topped with long pointed leaves. It’s a root vegetable, Alvarez offered. She asked if I had any guesses. I conceded. It grows yuca, she said.

“You know yuca?” Alvarez asked. I’m surprised she even had to ask. 

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Back on the plot she shared her plans for the fall. They hoped to have the soil ready for new seeds by the end of September. Between bouts of uprooting weeds, Alvarez would point to plants and explain their function. She drew my attention to a shrubby plant with green, lobed leaves contrasting against a crimson stem and spiked, scarlet buds. Alvarez identified the flower as roselle, also known as Jamaican Sorrel. The flower is anti-inflammatory and it makes good tea, Alvarez said. 

Growing crops seemed like another good way to stay grounded even among foreign soil. It seemed to be working for both Turull and Alvarez, at least.

“The land teaches you a lot,” Alvarez added. 

Overtime we may grow accustomed to new palates, but we never forgo the traditions of our home. Certain memories evoke feelings of nostalgia mixed with a subtle solitude. In times of loneliness, we can turn toward food and summon warmth through communal ties while honoring our present practices.

Valentina Sarmiento is a reporter for The Alligator.

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Valentina Sarmiento

Valentina Sarmiento is a UF journalism senior with a specialization in photojournalism. She is an Avenue staff writer for The Alligator. Aside from storytelling, she enjoys binging horror movies, cats and the occult.

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