What Is Latino Enough? Language, race, and empanadas

By Paul Reyes

I confess a cultural insecurity—namely, as a Hispanic American, I’ve always navigated the conversation about Latino identity with unsure footing, a vulnerability that mostly has to do with the Spanish language itself.

Mine is a slightly funky ancestry: a Colombian mother, a Cuban father, a combination that leads many Latinos to say, “¡Que mezcla tan rara!” But even in saying the phrase myself it’s clear that neither tongue works comfortably for me. I possess neither the crisp musicality de los colombianos nor the furry consonantless tumbling de los cubanos. My Spanish is passable, sure, but it is also glaringly self-conscious, mainly because it is a first language that began to fade during a boyhood in the South, despite my parents’ best efforts to preserve it. The fact that it evolved from a first language to a second one for lack of practice—for lack of commitment—evokes a mash of complicated feelings shared by anyone belonging to an immigrant family’s transitional generation who feels adrift between cultures. This drifting is distinct from code-switching, the cultural and linguistic acrobatics that allow us to play between identities, to improvise. Rather, this begins as code-switching, but slowly, over time, the tools you need to switch back are harder to find.

Mine is a slightly funky ancestry: a Colombian mother, a Cuban father, a combination that leads many Latinos to say, “¡Que mezcla tan rara!”

The critical question for me is whether I can get my Spanish back, and in doing so revive a stifled heritage. Now in my forties, I’ve slipped pretty far into the fog of who I’m supposed to be as a Latino in America—a man whose Spanish is stilted; a father who may have missed the chance to ingrain his own son with the language, who wedges it into conversations only to watch the boy roll his eyes and sigh, because a six-year-old knows the difference between discovery and duty; a Latino shy enough with his Spanish that he doesn’t drift too far from ordering huevos con chorizo or tacos al pastor at the Mexican restaurant, who clams up when the waiter throws some small talk at him; but also someone who, despite these disconnects, still gets a little choked up listening to Chavela Vargas or Eliades Ochoa.

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So the question of what kind of Hispanic I am has been an open one for years, with language at the center of the mystery. And perhaps that question and that mystery would have festered for another forty years or so were they not amplified and agitated by a death in the family—that of my grandmother, my mother’s mother, Helda Picón Blanco Ordoñez, a woman who was, for better and worse, a gravitational force for the family, whose quirks and complaints and ailments were a subplot to any conversation the rest of us were having. A woman who was as acerbic as she was doting, as much a smart-ass as she was a romantic. A woman of wisdom. A working-class matriarch who adored her daughter’s only child, a son named Paul whom she nicknamed “Pollo,” not unlike her favorite part of the bird, the white meat.

The author’s grandmother in her St. Petersburg, FL, kitchen, 1979.

But most of all, a woman who, in her indifference to the English language, was my bulwark against the old country’s culture fading out, and whose death now raises the specter of forgetting, since the voice that set the terms has been silenced.

I learned, as best I could, how to brown the meat, drain the grease, rub just the right amount of water on the tapas, knead them out, seal the empanadas with the tines of a fork.

See her there at the kitchen table: It could be 1976, or 1984, or sometime in the nineties: Helda with a deck of cards for solitaire, arranged in stalactite lines across a doily she crocheted herself. Some doilies she gave away as gifts; others were so damned good she framed them. She was serious with the crochet business, serious about sewing, a talent she picked up as a seamstress in a Philadelphia factory, where she landed from Colombia in 1965, and which she turned into her own means of making a living after my grandparents followed us to St. Petersburg, Florida, in 1973, the city she called home ever since.

She spent countless hours in two rooms: first, the sunroom, where she sat at a Pfaff 130 sewing machine, an industrial unit with a leather fan belt and foot pedal, the whole thing loud as a jackhammer when she pressed down. Here is where she sewed dresses for a little extra cash and talked back to the telenovelas in the afternoons, unleashing a torrent with each push of her foot.

Her other headquarters, of course, was the kitchen—a modest corner of the house, the first room you passed through when you entered from the carport. You walked through a short hallway, a junk room with the washer and dryer always running, before opening the kitchen door, frail like a stage prop that swished open. That kitchen, as welcoming as it was, was also an armory. Helda always kept the skillet on the stovetop—not only because she used it constantly but so that she knew where to find it in case of a break-in. The potato rock she used to sear steaks was a backup, in case she needed to attack from a distance.

That house in St. Petersburg is where Helda laid the foundation of her influence, during weekend visits and sleepovers, where cousins reunited. At that house, through the rituals of meals at the doily-draped kitchen table, or through storytelling interrupted by the Pfaff in the sunroom, she held court and spoiled us. Here is where I devoured her cooking—empanadas con guiso (a mix of sautéed beef and rice and hardboiled egg), arepas con queso, caldo con huevo, ají, and carne asada. That little kitchen was a nook for the sublime. I was lucky enough that she didn’t just feed me there, but taught me how to make those dishes. I learned, as best I could, how to brown the meat, drain the grease, rub just the right amount of water on the tapas, knead them out, seal the empanadas with the tines of a fork. Just enough cilantro to the apple cider vinegar so that the ají found its balance.

To understand Helda’s influence, it’s important to explain my family’s particular American experience. My parents met in Philadelphia in 1969, their families taking radically different paths to that moment, both arriving piecemeal, with their respective dramas.

The author (center) with his Colombian family in St. Petersburg, FL, 1980s.

The Picón family’s move from Colombia began with my uncle, Jorge, which is to say it began with Elvis Presley. Discovering Elvis was a transformative experience for him, a summons to escape the increasing suffocation he felt in Colombia. He convinced Helda’s sister, who already lived in Philadelphia, to sponsor him so he could finish high school in the States. Fed up with my grandfather’s failing business, fed up with my grandfather, fed up with Colombia, Helda used the occasion of her birthday—and the idea of visiting Jorge in Philadelphia as a birthday present—as a way to get out, too. By May 1965, she was reunited with her son in Philly, and a few months later, as a permanent resident, she offered my grandfather an ultimatum: If you want the family to stay together, it’s going to happen in America.

My grandfather was a reluctant immigrant. He settled what debts he could, pulled out his savings, and dragged his three remaining children, including my mother, to join Jorge and Helda in Philly. The timing of his arrival portended a dislocation he’d feel for the rest of his life here, for it was on Halloween that they arrived, discombobulated and exhausted, only to have to endure the weird mockery of kids knocking at the door for hours after dark, dressed as vampires and who knows what else, yelling tiki-tik! I know now that he was always uncomfortable in America, always tepid about the American Dream. He represents, perhaps, the immigrants who deserve their own literary epic: the tale of the lukewarm pilgrim. He was an immigrant who went home again, after fifty years of marriage, with great-grandchildren multiplying before him. He grew an octogenarian’s wild hair and returned to Colombia once and for all to sow whatever arthritic oats he had left, and to enjoy—as my mother would mockingly refer to it in her bitterness over this last move—la gloria de la Patria.

As opportunities in other cities called, the family spread out, away from each other and, more to the point, away from the matriarchal center.

My father arrived in 1962 at fifteen, with his nine-year-old brother in tow. The two boys were swept up in a brain-drain exodus of children known as Operation Pedro Pan, a program organized by the Catholic Welfare Bureau to extract Cuban children from Fidel Castro’s communism. Pedro Pan dropped them into the narrative of exile. Their parents were lucky to get out four years later, and the Reyes family reunited—through the randomness that distinguishes so much of the immigrant experience—in Stamford, Connecticut.

Growing up, and well into my twenties, I was skeptical of the Cuban exiles’ habit of mythologizing their suffering. Something about it seemed myopic in light of so many other immigrant struggles and tribulations, so many other varieties of survival and thriving. But empathy was easier to come by as my father, over the course of decades, slowly opened up about what he and his brother had been through. Empathy came quicker when I imagined two boys being told they were being sent on vacation to visit family friends in Miami, who dressed up in suits for the flight, and who, after landing in Miami, were greeted by a priest who informed them that the vacation would be longer than they’d been led to believe. That, in fact, no one could say for sure how long the boys would stay. This limbo, under the auspices of the Jesuits, who raised them among thousands of other kids in an Army barracks on the wooded edges of a weird city called Opa-locka, in a camp they called Matecumbe, would constitute the rest of their childhood.

It’s clear to me now that my father’s struggle with exile affected my relationship with my heritage. He spent considerable energy keeping his back turned on Cuba, not talking much about it—or if he did, doing so obliquely, dancing around the pain of his extraction as a kid. It took him forty years to look directly at it, and until then he kept moving forward as an American: insistent, overachieving, as if success were a kind of vengeance for the way in which he’d arrived.

In Stamford, the family together again, my father found his father a job welding plates at a die-cast factory. It was, as Dad describes it, “shit work,” and it pained him to watch his father trudge off at midnight for the graveyard shift, lunchbox dangling in his hand, uncomplaining as always. They knew of cousins in Philadelphia—a cluster of Cubans there. Why not give it a shot? The son told his father, Go visit. If you like it, we’ll move. His father liked it, so they did.

In Philadelphia, the Picóns and Reyeses had friends in common, a Cuban couple named Lino y Blanca, who seized upon the coincidence of my father and Jorge sharing a birthday, and the fact that Jorge had a younger sister who was old enough to date. This was providential stuff: What was everybody waiting for? Let the courtship begin—though let it abide by the old man’s rules. As the families got to know each other, and my father worked up the courage to ask permission to take my mother on a picnic, my grandfather said no.

But after a while, my grandfather grew to like him, and conceded to let him visit the house on Friday evenings from seven to nine. My parents would sit in the living room while my grandfather observed them from an adjacent room, pretending to watch television but in fact keeping an eye on them by means of a strategically placed mirror. My parents would catch him staring at them in reflection, or glancing back and forth between the mirror and the television. At nine on the nose, a clearing of the throat. “Ya es hora de que se vaya, Jose Miguel.” And that was that. Though they lived just four blocks away, they were left to these weekly visits—and to volumes of letters in between.

The author with his parents and maternal grandfather.

Philadelphia, St. Petersburg, Atlanta: Eventually, working days and studying nights, my father got a degree in architectural engineering. His career evolved from design to construction—building restaurants, specifically, which involved less finesse and more volume, less time at home and more on the road. As a workaholic immigrant with something to prove, the grind suited him.

The Atlanta phase was especially demanding. He had found work with a tragically named but quickly expanding restaurant chain called Sambo’s—the racist shorthand lost on him. Though it began as a family operation, by the time my father joined the company in 1977, Sambo’s had national ambitions. My father’s fear of failure, and the company’s expansionist visions, quickly led to him being named director of development for any Sambo’s east of the Mississippi.

The three of us spoke Spanish less and less. We had no Latino friends. You do your best to fit in, and for the most part we did.

It was in those years in Atlanta that my grip on Latino culture began to slip. In St. Petersburg, we were an enclave of our own—a family three generations and ten members strong. But as opportunities in other cities called, the family spread out, away from each other and, more to the point, away from the matriarchal center. And though my father was insistent about speaking Spanish at home, he was never home long enough to enforce the rule. He came up with the idea of sending me back to St. Pete to spend summers with Helda, to immerse me in the language for a while, hoping it would stick.

Watch Paul Reyes at SFA’s 2017 Southern Foodways Symposium.

We lived four years in Atlanta, then moved to Rocky Mount, North Carolina, a town of roughly forty thousand—a shock to my mother, who had no say in the matter and was forced to leave a job she loved, forced to abandon the cosmopolitan flavors of a city in which she’d formed an enthusiastic sense of self. Atlanta was a metropolis, Rocky Mount a Mayberry. And it was in Rocky Mount that the code’s switch started to stick, where the rituals of assimilation took over, where we did our best to blend in among white Southern neighbors. The three of us spoke Spanish less and less. We had no Latino friends. We practiced our Spanish on the phone with family, or at holiday get-togethers. In a small Southern town like that one, you do your best to fit in, and for the most part we did. Our fair complexions helped. My father’s job, working for Boddie Noell Enterprises to build as many Hardee’s as the South could hold, at the dawn of the phenomenon known as the breakfast biscuit—that helped, too. In fact, the lifestyle his job provided seemed to do a lot of the assimilation work for us. We lived in the right neighborhood. he worked for the right people. I went to the right school.

Even then, we could be on the receiving end of racism. We were fair game. I was ten when I realized it—an epiphany through a friend’s teasing, the son of someone who worked with my father. I wasn’t the target, but my father the foreigner was. I forget what prompted it, but I’ll never forget the moment, the slur, and the smile with which he said it—spic—over and over again because he could see the pain it caused, easing out the “S” and snapping the “C” like a rubber band against the skin. That last consonant like a flick between the eyes. Even more complicated was that this cruelty was delivered not with bile but in jest, a ribbing.

My father tells his own version of this experience. He was having breakfast at the Carlton House, a relatively fancy spot where families went for brunch after mass, where the business class expensed long lunches. He was there with a handful of colleagues and his boss, who genuinely liked him, had hired him, groomed him. On that day, his boss pointed to a coffee cup and said, “Jose, how do you get twelve Cubans to fit inside that little cup?”

My father shrugged.

“Tell ’em it floats.”

The table laughed. My father laughed, complicit in the humiliation. What was he to do? And who am I, even as an adult, to judge him? In high school back in St. Petersburg, in the late 1980s, I failed to strike back when my friends slapped that same epithet on me as a nickname. Spic. They were loud when they said it, too, calling to me across the courtyard. No faculty stepped up, no administrators—not even the Spanish teacher. Perhaps the strangest part of it was that they knew better than to say such a thing to our Chilean classmate, who was darker, more obviously Hispanic, even though I know he heard it. To them, I was safe. White enough to pass, white enough for them to think it didn’t really count.

In thinking about the ways in which we identify ourselves, it seems likely that we are defined as much by our crucibles as our rituals. And yet, is that Latino enough?

Being white enough to pass made a lot of things easy in the South. But the cost of resting in that advantage revealed itself as I got older, in the shame I felt at being an outsider among family who riff freely in the family’s first language, who get the joke on the first telling, who double down with idioms I’ve never heard. To have missed out on all this feels like an indictment of my own laziness, because I’ve always recognized a duty in preserving my heritage—one that I may have been shirking, sure, but a duty nonetheless. As if this wasn’t complicated enough, my sense of duty has somehow been coupled with a false confidence in being Hispanic, an ability to exploit it when it suited me. In my twenties and thirties, I enjoyed the exoticism of being Cuban, and the power of revealing it, fully aware that Cuba, a forbidden island, possessed a certain cultural cachet to Americans.

The idea of being secretly (or discreetly) Hispanic points to a deeper concern: that I have been able to enjoy the privilege of not having assumptions made about me, of not being judged by the color of my skin. My family may have suffered slights, but for the most part we had the luxury and freedom to make a first impression based on character, or personality, or skill set—first impressions that many of my Hispanic brothers and sisters aren’t afforded, and which are certainly denied to my American neighbors of any race that isn’t white.

By the time we returned to Helda in St. Petersburg, in 1984, living just a few miles away, I was more or less comfortable with my betweenness, with the clumsy code-switching I’d do between the school week and weekends, visiting with her. I was a teenager, my Spanish wobbly, and half our conversations at the time involved her tisking me or repeating what I’d said to her but with the verbs tidied up, tucking the articles and adverbs where they belonged.

Helda did her best to impart Colombian Spanish, which she and all Colombians believe to be superior. In fact, she mocked every other dialect but Colombian. She was classist when it came to articulation, and for her the Colombians were regal speakers without affectation.

There was one moment—just a moment—when my Spanish finally pleased her, when she didn’t just nod that I’d passed but actually praised me. We were on vacation in Colombia. I was fifteen—the first time I’d been back since I was a baby, when my mother had taken me on a kind of showcase tour among her grandparents and cousins and an extended circuit of two dozen aunts and uncles. This time around, it was just me and Helda, my cousin Jeff, and his father, Arnold. We’d been staying at my great grandmother’s home in Bucaramanga for a couple of weeks already, and had hired a driver to take us to see a fortress just outside the city, a spot with some historical, Catholic gravitas that Helda insisted on visiting. We puttered up a mountain in a tiny four-door Toyota, found the fortress, took the tour, slouched through its tunnels and admired the view of the valley from its ramparts. We then made our way through the heat back to the car. I flopped into the front seat, lowered the window and rested my arm on the door, fingers on the roof but with my thumb resting between the frame and the open rear door. Helda got in behind me. And with a hot, electric suddenness, I heard her door shut, the hinge click tight, and felt a current of pain shoot from my hand to my toes. No more than a second passed, in slow motion, and I screamed, “¡Hijo de puta—abre la puerta!”

Helda opened the door. I looked at my thumb, turning black, ballooning. The driver inhaled when he saw it. When I turned to look at Helda, I found her laughing—a belly laugh, couldn’t even catch her breath laughing, waving away tears laughing. The strangeness of it—the shock and hurt and insult—replaced the pain for just a moment, and I asked her: Why are you laughing?

“Mi vida,” she said, “su español salió perfecto!”1

Even the driver was impressed. “El gringo habla bien!”

Paying attention isn’t easy—the interrogation is painful—but it is critical.

Helda did not die peacefully, but at the mercy of brain cancer, an excruciating diminishment. By the time she’d discovered it, she had already moved into a nursing home run by nuns in Plano, Texas, where my mother had moved a while back. Helda adored the nuns and was an adopted member of the staff before she grew too weak to help. I was a father by then, busy enough that our relationship was mostly restricted to phone calls and, more often, her voicemails that scolded me for not calling back quickly enough. Busy…stretched thin…on the road…overworked…overwhelmed. Hospice. That’s when you drop everything and go. I visited her in July and helped choose her last room, which had a view of a small garden—something green to soothe her if she happened to gaze out the window.

She lived until September. The way my mother tells it, in Helda’s last days, her only moments of clarity were when she asked for me. Mom would have to assure her that I was somewhere nearby—mingling with the nuns, maybe—and that I’d be back soon even after I’d returned home. One morning, shocked at how lucid Helda was, asking to speak with me once again, my mother called.

The author and his grandmother, St. Petersburg, FL, 1977.

I was in the car, and whether it was sunrise or sunset outside I couldn’t tell you, only that the sun was low, and as we spoke she wept but I could hear that the sluggishness of the drugs was gone, that she was present, as we gushed affections to each other. It was the clearest Spanish I’d spoken since that day I howled in Colombia: pure and unselfconscious, just present, just as she was—all hers. After the call was over I couldn’t even remember what I’d said, only that it was a slightly different person who had said it.

It seems impossible to consider where I fall between cultures, and how the perception of my race has shaped my experiences, without engaging the larger confrontation over race in America. It would be irresponsible, in fact, to consider these questions and ignore the deeper pain and insult my Hispanic brothers and sisters—and by extension, all my fellow citizens of color—have endured in a culture wherein their alienation and oppression are taken for granted.

I am one of the whitest Latinos I know. That may seem like a superficial distinction, but it is undeniable that color carries weight. We are reminded of this daily if we’ve been paying the slightest attention to the larger self-interrogation on race in America. Paying attention isn’t easy—the interrogation is painful—but it is critical. It is my day job as an editor of journalism. It is my professional purpose. I’m certainly fortunate that a conflicted sense of self led to a career engaging these questions about race and the evolution of the American character, that the mission of my work as an editor is, in part, to foster voices in need of a platform.

Who am I among them? What have I given back based on what I’ve been able to reap as a Hispanic? If I’m asking what is Latino enough, I’m a breath away from the question, What is Asian enough? What is African American enough? What is enough of any distinction in race or ethnicity or culture in a country of so many immigrants? If I’m asking what is Latino enough, I’m a breath away from asking: What is American enough?

When I ask a more fundamental question—Who am I?—I think of Helda, and when I think of her I think of what she made: what she made for me, and what she made of me. I like to think that as I age and the circle of consciousness closes in, gets tighter, ejecting more frivolous memories so that the mind can carry just what it needs, that among the primary stuff that rises to the surface are the memories of her flavors, her cadence, those phrases in the purest Spanish I know—the powerful influences, embedded early. And I wouldn’t be surprised if the empanada—singular as hers were, never to be replicated—turns out to be my rosebud, the word I whisper in the last scene that has the nurses scratching their heads. Charles Foster Kane’s was a bobsled tossed into the fire; mine is a greasy hot-pocket stuffed with beef and rice and a hardboiled egg, the kind where you have to take a bite to make room for the ají to drip down inside and give it a little kick.

Is that Latino enough? It’s good enough for me.

Paul Reyes is the editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review and the author of Exiles in Eden: Life Among the Ruins of Florida’s Great Recession.

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