The papa rellena, or “filled potato,” is some of Latin America’s finest party food. A papa rellena is mashed potato made into a meat-filled dumpling/fritter, breaded, and deep-fried. They emerge from the fryer looking like small loaves of golden-brown joy, and provide a deeply engaging combination of textures when bitten. I’m a big fan, and I challenged myself recently with learning how to make them, as part of a foray into more technically challenging Hispanic recipes.
You’re attending a quinceañera. You’ve never seen the birthday girl before. Everyone else in attendance knows you, but if you ask them how, they change the subject. The caterers kiss you on the cheek and ask you when you’ll give them grandkids. You’ve never seen them before, either.
Images of people in my culture don’t look like me.
There’s a trivial sense in which that’s not true. My dark, angled eyes, curly hair, curvaceous figure, and diminutive stature all betray my origins. Our beauty queens and pop stars in particular look like me, conspicuously lighter in hue than even our own relatives. As distinctive as I always am in family photos, someone else who looked like me would not have seemed out of place.
But the image of us isn’t a scientist. She isn’t an atheist or a socialist. She isn’t dating outside her race. She isn’t deliberately far away from her parents. She isn’t autistic. She isn’t transgender. She isn’t gay.
Every family’s path is a story. One does not have to reach far into the generations to find that their history and the world’s are deeply intertwined. We are all children of history.
And my ancestors are the Cold War.
My father’s Cuba was less than a century removed from the pivot point where it decided not to become part of the United States. The freshly independent colony styled its flag after the American flag and built undreamed-of wealth through its rich, mountainous soil and glorious climate. It did so with a permissive business environment that let a whole new upper class grow itself out of the island’s natural resources while subjecting yet larger numbers of people to the kind of privation that only laissez-faire, libertarian economics can create. My father’s family ascended through the social ranks in this developing society, as they tell it, through business acumen, quintessentially Cuban inventiveness, and a sprinkling of luck, beginning a story that could not have been more American if José Martí had failed to convince Cubans of their island’s distinctiveness.
My father was born in 1957, 59 years after Cuba’s independence from Spain was realized and with Fidel Castro’s revolutionary warpath through the island already beginning. By the time he escaped the island eleven years later, the Gonzalez family’s holdings had been expropriated, Cuba was a Soviet satellite, and my grandfather had already been imprisoned for taking out that insult on the Communists during the 1961 American attack.
Dad got his American start as a child refugee fleeing a Communist government that stole everything his family had built. He spoke no English, was accompanied only by his ailing mother, and would not see his father again until years later, in a story I do not yet fully understand. He landed in New Jersey, long one of the United States’s receiving grounds for those who could no longer live in their original homelands and one of the country’s most vibrantly multicultural regions.
I will never fault him for the irrepressible, fiery drive that propelled him through school, taught him English, kept him working multiple jobs to help support his sick family, and got him into college-preparatory programs without a great deal of the aid that a modern student in similar straits would have received. I will never fault him for the well-honed social intuition and work ethic that helped him rise, against his own desires, through the ranks of grocery-store management when his mother’s medical needs prevented him from continuing with school. I will never fault him for the financial genius that got him into flipping houses in the 1970s and 1980s. I will never fault him for the sheer willpower that kept him working full-time and renovating houses for sale the rest of the time, while Mom was doing the same, for over 15 years. I will never fault him for the accumulated, experiential wisdom that enabled him to sell most of his investment properties and enter a loan-sharking semi-retirement at age 50 while putting three kids through university with no student loan debt.
I would not be an American if I did any less than beam with pride at my parent’s story. It’s something that Horatio Alger might have written—the classic American tale of starting with nothing and ending with everything.
But it’s also the kind of story that affects how people see the world. Poverty and struggle shape one’s mind and leave scars that no lifetime of riches to follow can ever dispel.