When I first came to Oregon straight from Puerto Rico, I was so homesick; it was hard to bear. As an immigrant, you are not only faced with the challenge of adapting to a new language and culture. Immigrants come riddled with nostalgia. Nothing is more nostalgic than the smells and food we grow up eating. It's why my husband loves chips and toast, or I love plantains. There is also nothing more exciting about another culture than trying new foods.
I remember someone offering me a snack and asking if I wanted to have some yogurt. I was excited to try it because I loved the letter Y in English. You don't have a mellow flute-like sound from a letter like that in Spanish. As a matter of fact, Y has the opposite sound. It's curt sounding, like a J. My favorite word in the whole English language was the word Yellow.
The word yogurt sounded super exciting!
Except, I hated it. Once stirred, the yogurt was a cold rubbery shade of pink, and it tasted like sour milk mixed in with sweet strawberry candy. Calling it a snack made it even more confusing because snacks back at home were always salty or savory treats. Only desserts like flan, Tembleque, or Arroz Dulce, were sweet. I didn't like to eat it, but I would pretend to because by opening the cup of yogurt and, with a spoon, stirring the sweet fruit at the bottom with the sour milk-like custard until it all blended together, I was reliving a childhood memory that eased the pain of being homesick all the time.
The stirring of yogurt reminded me of when my grandfather used to repaint all the walls of his house white every year before Christmas and would let me stir the paint. When I grew up, Christmas was not just for family get-togethers. The tradition was to raid your friends and neighbors at night! Asaltos or Assaults, a Puerto Rican version of Christmas Caroling, occur late at night when you're asleep. Friends and neighbors gather outside your home with musical instruments very quietly. They break out into singing and playing instruments until everyone in your house, including kids and grandparents that live with you, gets out of bed, opens the door, and lets everyone in!
A trail of people pours into your house singing. Other neighbors, who are awake or awoken by the music, may join in. You are happy to see them because you are well prepared. Not only are your walls freshly painted, and the house looks sparkling with Christmas lights, your bar, and kitchen are fully stocked. While singing, eating, drinking, and laughing, everyone decides which house to hit next!
The family, who was robbed, grabs their musical instruments, traditionally percussion devices easy for anyone to play, and joins the Asalto. The "parranda" or "party parade" continues until dawn.
He would paint the entire month of November. On the one hand, he had his rum and coke; on the other, his brush, and with every brushstroke, I anticipated a wave of friends and neighbors filling up the house in the middle of the night, drinking and dancing till dawn.
My job was to help him stir the paint. Back in Oregon, I was so riddled with nostalgia; it was hard to bear. I found myself eating yogurt all the time to stir and relive that childhood experience. Little did I know until I wrote this book that Daniel Carasso was the father of modern yogurt. His father, Isaac, began selling the stuff in Barcelona, naming the venture after young Daniel, the eldest child and only boy in the family whose name in Catalan was "Danon," or "Danny." After World War Two, Mr. Carasso changed the company name to Dannon, which had a better ring to American ears, and to make the rather sour product more appealing to American taste buds, he and his partners decided in 1947 to add strawberry jam. "Fruit on the Bottom" was enough to turn an obscure ethnic food into a favorite American snack.
No wonder I hated the strawberry jam in the yogurt. It was as if my Spaniard taste buds knew the strawberry jam was not meant to be there because, wouldn't you know it, my grandfather's surname or mother's maiden name, is, Artau, is Catalan. My birth name is Gretchen Lizzette Rosario Artau. I was also destined to recreate a Yogurt experience in America in a girl-paint way!
The paint spoke for itself. It went on like yogurt, even though not one had ever painted it with yogurt. My personal experience became a means to belonging and connection.
I bet you have some colorful memories to unpack....
From My Bag To Yours,