Cosas del Horno

by Alexandra Gulden

When I close my eyes to sleep, no matter where I am, I can still hear the rustling of the banana plants that screened off my tía’s backyard from that of her Brazilian neighbors. In the spring, they bloomed a single, frightening purple flower. With little brown bananas ringing its green, corrugated neck, the petals hung like the beak of an alien ready to sample my young flesh.

In the spring, I would also find my tía harvesting the leaves with an ancient machete. With the rusty pair of scissors she usually kept in the bathroom, she would cut the leaves into sheets the size of dinner plates. Then she would line the leaves with dough of cornflour and juice from a bitter orange, tender pork, rice, black beans, potato, onion, bell pepper, and mint, and tie it all off into a little bundle with thread. She would drop the bundles into a huge tamalera, and the smell of cornflour and banana leaves would fill the kitchen.

It was this smell that greeted me when I stepped out of my cab in Kenner, Louisiana. On the plane, I had kindled the hope that someone would come to pick me up, but once I landed, I found myself still in exile. My tía, at work, had left dinner for me in the pot: a nacatamal, like a mutant tamale, an entire meal wrapped in banana leaves.

My friend tells me that language isn’t the only thing that changes when we code-switch; our personalities shift as well. When she speaks Mandarin with the group, I listen for the difference. I like to guess what my friends are talking about from the English that pops up: international, major, admissions, campus safety.

I have a friend who only speaks Spanish when drunk.

“¡Ten cuidao!” I yell after him.

“¿Quién hablas Español?” a voice pops up.

“Yo puedo, pero no bien.”

“¡Todos podemos hablar!’

Baila, baila, que para bailar no necesitas lengua. We become four different voices, four different nations of dialects, three homegrown, searching for ourselves in the night.

When I was little, I had an uncontrollable craving for tortillas. My little fingers were forbidden to touch the stove, my tía tells me, so I would steal her tortillas, store-bought Mission yellow corn, straight from the refrigerator. Without fire, the lone tortilla felt damp and clammy in my hands, like a dead fish. I nibbled the coldness away. If we stayed the night at her house, in the morning Tía would serve my sister and me tortillas de harina, thick flour tortillas prepared nicaragüense-style. These were my favorite kind, but I wasn’t picky; I ate handmade flour with breakfast, corn for lunch and in-between meals, even the gringo flour for dinner. The only tortillas I wouldn’t touch were the bright yellow hard shells—tasteless, sacreligious, and with bits like daggers in my windpipe. Later I would learn how to mix masa for tortillas, how to roll it between my hands and press it into the right shape. The masa smelled of my tía’s kitchen: her nacatamales, her sopa de queso, her pastelitos, and other smells, some of which I can no longer name.

When my cousin calls me matamama, I must ask Tía what it means. Mother killer is the literal translation, but she explains there is no real equivalent in English. In common usage, it refers to a traitor, someone who believes that another country or its ways are better than their own. I had just called the sweet, multi-colored bread I bought at my local supermercado by its Mexican name—concha, shell—rather than the Nicaraguan word—cosa de horno, thing of the oven. She was joking of course, but the word struck something deep inside me. A word that was purely Nicaraguan for a girl who was not, a girl whose tongue that should have been split between two languages but had long since forgotten how to ask for pan dulce.

My life is made up of half-labels, rounded up. I tell people I am Latina because I am racially ambiguous but cannot usually pass for white. Nicaragua, I tell them if they ask what country. Just through my mother, if they press further, because “half-Nicaraguan” does not sit well on my tongue. How can one be half a flag, or half-Latino, when Latino is not a race but as unquantifiable as the ocean? I do not tell them that, due to his skin color, my classmates have always assumed that I am Latina through my father, that most people in the South mistake him for Hispanic. And yet, my father does not recognize how, systematically, his race and class status have still awarded him much privilege—trust in the government, trust in the police, trust in the American Dream—because even after being called spic or wetback or being pulled over because the police did not believe that an “amigo” could own such a nice car, all my father ever had to say was one thing: I am one of you.

In the Calle 13 song “Latinoamérica,” Residente says that whoever doesn’t love their country doesn’t love their mother. How does one write about their mother? Mine has hair blacker than currants and skin the soft orange of a mango that isn’t yet fully ripe. She looks like the mestiza in a vintage poster, or maybe like a María Félix, the white Indian of Mexican cinema. She avoids the sun like the plague. Beautiful is the word that follows her, but when I was little, I thought there was something cruel in her beauty: in her black eyes and Spaniard’s nose, in her voice blowing across the house like the Big Bad Wolf.

Given the city’s long history of diverse cultures and miscegenation, mixed children are far from an unusual sight in New Orleans. But Latinos were, at least before Katrina. Growing up, I was not familiar with terms like Latinx, Hispanic, or mestizo. The borders of my mind were not yet so well-defined. From my urban daycare, I saw my family, and thus myself, as simply one of many tiny units that made up New Orleans. There were only those who spoke Spanish, and those who did not. There was my sister and me and then the rest of the world. We knew instinctively that Spanish was meant for inside the home, to be saved like your best clothing for family.

Nicaragua was nothing more than a handful of memories: the mouths of banana flowers curling like dragons, beach sand kicked up by the tires of my cousins’ motorcycles, a yellow zipline running against the green backside of a volcano. In my house, clay gorditas holding fruit are perched on every windowsill. By the back door hangs a folklorico painting of a village, campesinos dotting the cobblestones like worry dolls. On a bookshelf, a clay turtle wobbles to an absent wind. There was no need to hold any of this close, not yet. And then the hurricane came.

As people’s homes were swept into the Gulf or deposited in ditches like toys, for me the most lasting impact of Hurricane Katrina would be losing my Spanish. We had moved temporarily to the safety of Dallas to join my father’s family. I knew they were people who did not speak Spanish. As they watched my sister and I speak strange words to our mother, they feared the Spanish words coming into our brains would crowd out the English. My mother was asked to stop speaking Spanish to us, and by the time my tía came to visit six months later, we had adapted so well to the change that we had forgotten not just the language but the fact that we had ever been fluent at all.

I never learned a word in Spanish for great aunt. If it exists, and I’m sure it does, Latinx culture does not care to make the distinction; everything is simply a matter of rounding. The aunt who is only two years older than me, as well as the daughter of my mother’s best friend, are my cousins. Any woman who I may have the slightest chance of being related to (a Nicaraguan in the South) and is more than 10 years my senior becomes my tía. Any grown man who helps my Tío Frank grill carne asada in the concrete strip in front of his cabana becomes my tío as well. I round and round until I forget how exactly we are related.

When my tía introduces me to people, she calls me her grandmother. I call her tía, but when I write poems about her she becomes my abuela—spinner of tales, library of New-World knowledge, non-believer in medicine. Her brain is like an encyclopedia. She can recall any historical event pertaining to Latin America, from our little isthmus to the Falkland Islands and back. She has read the great Spanish writers, from Cervantes to Marquez, and like any good Nicaraguan she can recite Ruben Dario in her sleep. She can make any dish she decides to, from a Thanksgiving turkey to Mexican chilaquiles. She tells me that when I return from college, she will teach me all her secrets, but we both forget.

Even the best poets would be hard-pressed to beat the story one of my tías tells on Facebook:

In Nicaragua, when I was a little girl, every time I asked for something, whether it was an expensive toy or to travel somewhere far, far away, either my grandmother, whom I called Mami, or my aunts would tell me I would get it “en el año del humo,” in the Year of Smoke. I always waited patiently for the Year of Smoke to arrive.

One day, there was a forest fire so big you could see smoke clouds from the city. While everyone was worried about the fire spreading, I was jumping for joy because, in my innocent mind, I would finally have everything I had ever wanted, everything I had ever asked for, because for me the Year of Smoke had arrived! My grandmother looked at me and asked me why I was so happy, and I told her, pointing to the smoke in the distance. My mom saw me and said, moving her head from one side to the other, no mija, it is still not the Year of Smoke. I was so sad and confused, and I could not understand.

I told this story to my little Valeria, who likes to listen to my childhood anecdotes. She asked for the real meaning of el año del humo, and I had never asked myself. She searched Google and sadly for me, this was what she found: “The Smoke Year is a phrase used in Nicaragua for those things that cannot be obtained at the moment, to give hope.” She looked at me sadly, saying pobrecita Mami.

When I began the process of re-learning Spanish, I discovered parts of myself that I’d forgotten. I spoke with a higher pitch, gestured more, laughed and smiled more. The names of animals I’d find in my abuela’s garden came back to me: paloma, lagarto, rana; culebra, araña, abeja. Sounds and songs returned one by one, like old friends. 

Up until I returned to my tía’s house, a hunger had been growing beneath my ribs. I wanted to hear my music, not just through my earbuds but in the supermercado searching for pulparindo or dancing at one of my uncle’s parties. I wanted to eat food that could satisfy me, but instead I was stuck gazing at fields of corn surrounding my rural college while longing for the tortillas that could be made from grinding the kernels.

After eating the nacatamal, I pace the empty house. My other aunt, a seasonal bird, has migrated back to Nicaragua for the winter. I walk into the backyard and see that the banana trees have been killed by a frost. Absentmindedly, I wonder where my aunt found the leaves to make the nacatamales.

I am in exile, unable to return home. I spend my time in my tía’s kitchen, writing and worrying about the future. She reminds me that this is my home as well, but I long for my other half—the part of me that loves the ancient homes of my neighborhood, the part of me that could lie in bed and listen to the sounds of ships and trains calling out to each other up and down the river, the part of me that is more familiar with the swamps at the city’s outskirts than with the mountains of my mother. I am just 12 miles from the center of New Orleans, but in my tía’s house surrounded by parking lots and pupuserías, I feel farther from home than ever.

On Netflix’s One Day at a Time, the abuelita jokes that there are two things Latinos cannot have: divorce and depression. I often think about my family’s rejection of the latter, though they may need to face mental illness more than anyone else. I think about how my mother was raised in a war zone, how her father fought in the Revolution only to die in a plane crash a few years later, how she grew up watching bodies pass, many strangers and others family. How my tía’s life has been punctuated with disaster: the earthquake and Somocista, the deaths of her father and her brother, the loss of her livelihood and her country as she knew it.

I find writing about my life difficult. I tell myself that my memory is horrible, that all the events run together in a blur. When an interviewer asks, when did you face a difficult problem in your life, and how did you solve it? I must laugh nervously and ask them to give me a moment, because it takes me a while to pick through my experiences.

What is left unsaid: it takes me a while to pick through an experience that won’t leave them staring uncomfortably, because a difficult problem means balancing playing soccer and finishing homework, not being kicked out your house for being bisexual.

We keep our heads down, moving, moving, pushing forward, but at what point does it become too much? At what point will we be able to move no further, falling to crumbs? I think about the trauma brown women take on: the trauma that none of my friends are free from; how we are expected to simply bear it and must internalize it to survive; how even after writing an entire essay I struggle to speak about it, no matter how many languages I may know.