What We’re Reading: Flavors from Home by Aimee Zaring

[This excerpt has been edited for length. To read Omar’s story in full, and many more from refugees that have resettled in Kentucky, pick up Aimee Zaring’s just-released Flavors from Home: Refugees in Kentucky Share Their Stories and Comfort Foods.]

Omar Pernet Hernández, September 1, 2012 

Throughout his lifetime, Omar has served four separate prison sentences–a total of twenty-two years. If you ask him why he went to prison, he says, “Always to defend human rights.” Once, teasing, I asked Omar, who has three grown children, how he had time to make babies when he spent so much time in jail. He chuckled and said, “I married young.”

Omar founded and is still considered the international representative of Cuba’s unofficial national human rights movement, created in honor of Mario Manuel de la Peña. Peña, an American pilot born to Cuban parents, voluntarily flew search-and-rescue missions to save Cuban rafters. He died when Cuban MiGs shot down his plane. When I ask Omar what year Peña died (1996), his activist spirit flares. He raises his voice and pumps his fist in the air. “He didn’t die. He was assassinated.”

Omar’s independent library and his involvement with his human rights organization eventually led to another imprisonment in early 2003–part of the “Black Spring” roundup of Cuban dissidents that sent about seventy-five journalists and grassroots democracy and human rights activists to prison. Omar was sentenced to an astounding twenty-five year prison term.

On February 16, 2008, Omar finally caught one of the biggest breaks of his life when he and some other Black Spring dissidents, whom Amnesty International had designated ‘prisoners of conscience,’ we released from jail and exiled to Spain. Omar liked Spain, but it had always been his hope to live in the United States because, at his core, he identified himself as an American. He now enjoys the basic freedoms that were denied him for so long.

Although his brave fight to defend human rights and end oppression has cost him a lot–his health, his family, his homeland–Omar has no regrets. Nor has he lost any love for his native Cuba. However, he feels repugnance for the government. “Castro called me a counterrevolutionary,” Omar once said. “But I represent the new revolution.”

Omar’s Tostones (Twice-Fried Green Plantains)

Tostones (toes-TOE-nays) are a popular side dish in Cuba, Latin American countries, and the Caribbean. It is believed that the tostone tradition originated with African slaves. Tostones (from the Spanish tostar, “to toast”) are fried twice, salted, and eaten like french fries or potato chips.

To peel a plantain, cut off the top and bottom and score a line along the length of the plantain. Lifting up from this line, remove the peel (use a knife to help if necessary).

Omar’s Tostones

Serves 4 (makes about 20-25 pieces)

Ready in about 30 minutes

Vegetable or canola oil for deep-frying

3 green (unripe) plantains, peeled and sliced into 3/4 to 1-inch rounds

Salt or sea salt

Fresh ground pepper (optional)

Fill a large skillet about 1/4 full with oil and heat over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot enough to pop, carefully add plantains in a single layer (this will take a couple of batches). Fry the plantains until they’re cooked halfway through and slightly brown (5 to 6 minutes), turning once with a slotted spatula.

Transfer the plantains to a plate lined with paper towels. Keep the oil in the skillet heated. With the botton of a glass or a can, smash the plantains to about half their thickness.

Carefully return the plantains to the oil and fry again, turning occasionally until golden brown on both sides.

Transfer back to the paper towel-lined plate. Sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste. Serve warm as an appetizer or a side dish. Tostones are best when eaten warm and fresh.