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Op-Ed

The other melting pot

Under the roof of one vast supermarket, I savor the presence of the continent where I was born; I go back to my origins.

November 04, 2012|By Ariel Dorfman
  • "Origins," writes Ariel Dorfman, "are never merely personal but deeply collective, and especially so for Latin Americans such as myself, who feel an entraable fellowship with those from other unfortunate countries of our region."
"Origins," writes Ariel Dorfman, "are never merely personal… (Edel Rodriguez / For The…)

There is a store I visit from time to time for convenience's sake, or to indulge in nostalgia, where I can find all of Latin America on display.

Under the roof of this one vast supermarket I savor the presence of the continent where I was born; I go back, so to speak, to my own plural origins.

On one shelf: Nobleza Gaucha, the yerba maté my Argentine parents used to sip every morning in their New York exile — my mother with sugar, my father in its more bitter form. Even to contemplate the bag that this herb comes in allows me to recall how anxiously mi mamá y mi papá awaited shipments from the authoritarian Buenos Aires they had escaped in the '40s.

A bit farther along in the store, I come upon leche condensada en una lata, the sort I would sip from a can on adolescent camping trips in the mountains of Chile, where my family moved when I was 12. And nearby, a tin of Nido, the powdered milk my wife Angélica and I first fed our son Rodrigo as a baby, almost half a century ago in Santiago. Or Nesquik para niños, the chocolate we relied on to sweeten the existence of our younger son, Joaquín, when he accompanied us back to Chile after many years of exile from Pinochet's dictatorship.

Origins, however, are never merely personal but deeply collective, and especially so for Latin Americans such as myself, who feel an entrañable fellowship with those from other unfortunate countries of our region. A stubborn history of thwarted dreams has led to a shared sense of purpose and sorrow, hope and resilience that joins us all emotionally, beyond geographic destiny or national boundaries. To stroll up and down the aisles of that grocery store is to reconnect with the people and the lands and the taste buds of those brothers and sisters, and to partake, however vicariously, in meals being planned and prepared at that very moment in millions and millions of homes everywhere in the hemisphere.

There is canela from Peru and queso crema from Costa Rica and café torrado e moido (O sabor do campo na sua casa) from Brazil. There is coconut juice from the Caribbean and frijoles of every possible and impossible variety and maíz tostado from Mexico and bunches of fresh apio (celery) from the Dominican Republic (they look like tiny twisted idols) and hierbas medicinales para infusiones from who knows where, and albahaca and ajonjolí and linaza and yuca and malanga and chicharrones de cerdo and chicharrones de harina.

If you were to go to Sao Paolo or Caracas or Quito, if you were to try to shop for this assortment of staples and delicacies in San Salvador or La Paz or Bogota, if you were to ask in any major or minor city of Latin America where you might be able to pick your way through such a plethora of culinary choices in one location, you would be told that a place like that does not exist anywhere in that country. There is no shop in Rio de Janeiro, for instance, that next to an array of carioca fare would allow you to select among 18 multiplicities of chile peppers and buy Tampico punch and sample casabe bread.

Where it does exist is in Durham, N.C., where our family settled after many decades of wandering. It exists less than half a mile from our house, sporting a name that cleverly works in Spanish and English and Portuguese. Who would have thought that in a small city (population 233,252) in the Southern United States there could be a greater representation of all of Latin America than in Rio, with its 6.5 million inhabitants, or in Ciudad de Mexico with its 20 million.

The reality of a store like the one my wife and I visit in Durham (and there are more like it, from Massachusetts to South Carolina, from Chicago to L.A.) resoundingly proves — if further proof was really needed — that the continent of Benito Juarez and Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Eva Peron can no longer be understood to stop at the Rio Grande but extends far into the gringo North.

The food that hails me at that Latino megamarket is not, of course, something you just sniff and peel, cook and devour. Hands reach for the potatoes that originated thousands of years ago in the Andean highlands; mouths water for the pineapple that the conquistadors did not know how to describe; bodies tremble at the thought of using their tongues, Proust-like, to return to a childhood home most of them will never see again. Beyond hands, mouths and bodies there flourishes a cosmic pinata of stories like mine, of escaping the native land, of alighting elsewhere, of crossing frontiers legally or surreptitiously, of border guards and guardian angels, of fighting to keep in touch with the vast pueblo latinoamericano left behind, of memories of hunger and repression and also of solidaridad and vivid dreams.

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