Food, Family and Feeling Boricua

“See those statues on the corner?” David asks. “The man on the right is flirting with the young woman on the left and the guy across the street is jealous, so he’s glaring at them and banging his drums. At least that’s the story my uncle tells.” David chuckles, and I can see the tenderness and amusement in his eyes. We’re driving into the hills outside the town of Caguas in the northeastern part of Puerto Rico, about an hour south of San Juan, on our way to the house of his Tío Luis and Tía Ana. David hasn’t been to the island in four years, and his family here is so excited for his visit that they’re roasting a pig on the spit Luis has built in his backyard, and they’ve invited dozens of aunts, uncles, and cousins for the party. David saw Luis and Tité, as they call Ana, when he came to set up for the party the day before, but this will be my first time meeting any of his extended family in Puerto Rico. I’m nervous and wish I could speak some Spanish.

“Turn right here,” he says, when he spots the landmark purple house on the left, and we head higher up the hill in the area that’s known as the campo (countryside). When we turn into the narrow driveway, he calls his uncle to open the gate and we drive to the grassy field above his property to park near the house.“Tío, cómo estás?!!” he calls to Luis, and they embrace as Luis offers David a cold Medalla beer. I see their connection immediately and it’s touching. Luis greets me warmly with a kiss on the cheek and explains that Tité is in town getting a cake for David’s daughter who will join us at the party that afternoon. He shows us the bar which is stocked with standards here like Don Q rum and Johnnie Walker whiskey, but mostly filled with homemade concoctions: traditional coquito plus coffee, pistachio, pumpkin, mango, and guava flavored drinks made with pitorro, the local sugar cane moonshine that is popular in Puerto Rico, that’s sitting to the side in a gallon water jug. I’m more than a little afraid to drink moonshine while it’s still morning, so I pour a glass of pink cava from the cooler instead.Luis is anxious to show us the pig, so we follow him to the spit. Although he’s in his 70s and struggling with rib pain, he was up at four to start the coals and load the pig into the spit. It’s already a nice golden-brown color, and I inhale deeply and salivate as I watch it turn and smoke on the rotisserie. “Seventy pounds,” he tells us, before closing the pit door. He’ll nurse the pig along for the next several hours, crisping up the skin perfectly, until the guests can’t wait any longer to dig in.We’ve arrived early to have a little time alone with the older aunts and uncles before everyone else gets here. David’s mother Emerita was the eldest of thirteen siblings, but today only five are still alive – four of them still live here in Puerto Rico. Luis and David struggle to remember them all and to list them in order; eventually I pull out my phone to capture the names and birth order for future reference. Tía Carmen who is 83 and lives close by in Caguas arrives first, then Tía Isabel, the baby, who is 73 and lives with her husband Johnny in Vega Baja on the north side of the island near Dorado. Tité, returns from the store, and one by one, the aunts hug and kiss David, who I’m quickly learning is their favorite sobrino, before he introduces them to me. Everyone is beaming so I take photos of them with David.The oldest living man in the family is Tío José, known as Pepin, who will soon turn 90, and everyone is asking David if he’s coming to the party. He has a rocky relationship with most of the family, I’m told, but David picks up the phone to call him anyway. “Tío Pepin! Soy Davey!” He tries to cajole him into coming to the party, offering to pick him up, but Pepin resists, using excuses like his knee hurts and he’s waiting for a home repair. In reality, he’s struggling with Alzheimer’s and depression and it’s simply too much effort. Plus, he’s stubborn – really stubborn I’ll learn over the coming week.The aunts show me the food they’ve prepared to accompany the pig: a vegetarian version of arroz con gandules (Puerto Rico’s national dish of rice and pigeon peas), and one with pork, pastel (a Puerto Rican type of tamale made with mashed green plantains, meat, and vegetables wrapped in banana leaves and steamed), blood sausage that includes lots of rice, marinated green bananas, a breadfruit salad, and a vast array of sweets. They are all trying to feed me, but I prefer to wait until the rest of the relatives arrive and the party gets started, so I get just a small serving of rice to tide me over. I struggle to communicate with them, trying to shift between English and some Italian which is about as close to Spanish as I can get. When I see they don’t understand me, I finally point to my tattoo. “Poco a poco,” I say. I assure them I plan to eat plenty today, just “little by little.” They laugh and I finally relax.David shows me around the property while we wait for family to arrive. Passion fruit, banana, gandules, papaya, and lime trees, along with pots of herbs and more. The property sits on a hill and as the day progresses the sun will shift to the west, setting behind the lush green hills across the valley below. Next to the house is a covered patio with a dining table, then a large outdoor area where the pit and bar are situated. David and one of his cousins have set up chairs and tables around the property the day before for the dozens who are coming for the reunion.By three the place is full, and two men lift the pig from the pit to carve it. I fill my plate with the salty pork and side dishes, then greedily take a few pieces of the skin. It’s crispy, crunchy, and salty – and sinfully good. Before the night’s over I will have eaten about ten pieces, feeling no remorse at my gluttony. I know it’s likely to be another year before I’ll have a chance to indulge like this again.Over the next two hours, we eat, and eat, and then eat more. Every time I’m ready to surrender, one of the tías comes by with something new. First a plate of blood sausages, and more pieces of skin, then small containers of homemade rice pudding, which is puréed and smooth instead of chunky like my own mom made. I can’t eat a single bite more so decline the pastries and candies they offer.Hours later, the party is still going strong, as wave after wave of cousins and their offspring join us. I work hard to piece the families together in my mind, knowing I’ll never remember them all. Eleven of David’s first cousins pose for a group photo. There is Pepin’s son José, Luis’s son Eliud, Iris, Gloria, Felix, Orlando, Roberto, and Carmen, plus three more I can’t name. All day long they’ve been calling for David, “Davey, Davey!” but pronounced “Dabey”, all intent on getting their time with him. Without warning, everyone starts singing and clapping as Tité brings out a cake with a single candle to celebrate David’s daughter’s birthday. She is beaming, and I see she shares her dad’s connection to this extended family. They present her with a few gifts, and she tears up at their kindness.We don’t leave the party until eleven that night, a full twelve hours after we arrived. I’m amazed that David’s elderly aunts and uncles have hung in there all of this time, and I’ve noticed that the pitch has risen steadily all night, partially the result of the amount of moonshine consumed, but also a happy side effect from being reunited with family. Unexpectedly, I start crying on the way to our hotel, struggling to explain to David how I’m feeling. My own family was very small, and I’m sad that most of them are now gone. I’m touched that his family welcomed me so warmly. I’m more than a little worried, based on their ages and ailments, that I might not be able to spend a day like this again with his tíos and tías. Mostly, I’m simply grateful for the experience.The next morning, we head back to Luis’s house early to meet Eliud. He is twenty years younger than David, but they are close and love spending time adventuring and partying whenever David is on the island. When we arrive the outside patio table is set and Tío Luis is at the stove in the kitchen making breakfast for us. Feeding people is a big part of this culture, and it reminds me a lot of Italy and my time spent there every year. I don’t really feel hungry, still full after all of the pork from the night before but surprise myself and devour the food: eggs over easy, bacon, jamón, pepperoni, toast, fruit and papaya juice.Before we leave, I ask for Tité’s recipe for sofrito, the primary condiment for seasoning used in Puerto Rican cuisine. She starts writing it on a pad for me, but it’s in Spanish and she can’t translate it, so she takes me by the hand to the garden to show me the ingredients and I write down the English words for each herb I know by sight or smell.There’s a different type of cilantro we don’t get in the US and I’m already wondering where I can order seeds for my herb garden this summer. Tité doesn’t list any quantities, but David promises his sister will help me recreate the recipe.Our bellies full, we’re ready for what’s on tap for the day: a chinchorreo tour through the central mountains of Puerto Rico. A chinchorreo is a roadside kiosko with a bar and food – typical fried things like chicharrónes (fried pork skin), bacalaítos (fried codfish fritters), and empanadas, as well as ensalado de pulpo (octopus), carne frita (deep fried chunks of pork), roast chicken, and more. We drive from Caguas up into the hills of Borinquen to meet Eliud’s friend Victor who has agreed to guide us. “Your mom and my dad were born here,” Eliud tells him, and then explains how their parents had to walk down the hill, taking off their shoes to cross the river three times before they reached their school and could put their shoes back on.“The people here are called ‘jíbaros’, which means hillbilly,” David tells me, “because of the mountainous region they come from.” His father was from the city of Ponce, and David can remember his dad poking fun at his mom when he was a kid because of her hillbilly upbringing. Beyond geography, the features of his parents also differ. The Torres family, his father’s side, descends from the Spanish, and have fairer skin and lighter eyes. The Cruz family, his mother’s side, descends from Taíno native islanders, so their skin and eyes are darker and their noses flatter and wider.Victor and his wife drive ahead in his truck while we follow behind in our car. Over the next eight hours we will stop at seven chinchorreos, and by the end of the day will have covered over 100 miles, looping through the hills of central Puerto Rico from Borinquen to Bayamón. The experience is somewhat like a pub crawl, except the kioskos are filled with families. It’s Sunday, the next day is a holiday, and the weather is nice, so it’s crowded.At each kiosko, we jockey to park our cars, then hop out and head to the bar where everyone orders a beer. Although there is time between each kiosko and Medalla is a light beer, I’m still surprised by the level of drinking. I’m the designated driver, so only take sips of David’s beer at each place.The towns are quite small and spread out here, with fincas (farms) filling in the landscape. There are limited services for people living in these remote hills, so most kioskos also have a retail counter which seems a little like a general store, selling everything from motor oil to tampons to pantry staples like canned coconut milk. We share chicharrónes and bacalaítos at the second kiosko, then carne frita and tostones (deep fried green plantains), with hot sauce at the fourth stop.I’ve been looking forward to our sixth stop all day, El Rancho de Don Nando in Naranjito. Nando is famous for his carne ahumada (smoked meat) and morcillas (blood sausage), and I’m thrilled to find him seated in the front of the corrugated metal structure, greeting everyone with a loud shout out: “Aprieta!” I squeeze in for the hug from him and a photo before accepting a sample of the longaniza (cured pork sausage similar to chorizo) and blood sausage.We wander a bit to see the eclectic antique décor – old guns, sewing machines, oxen yokes, pots, telephones, and cuatros fill the walls of the rooms between the outdoor dining areas and the smokehouse in the back. Wherever there is an empty space, they’ve hung poster board with a famous Nando quote written in Sharpie. My favorite is “No estaba ‘muerto’, andaba de parranda” which translates loosely to, “He wasn’t dead, he was out partying.”We sit down to wait for our order, and even though the crowds are thinning late in the afternoon, it still takes 45 minutes. While we wait, we try to determine Nando’s actual age. The guy handing out the samples says early seventies, but when Eliud asks Nando directly, he says 102. “He’s somewhere between 71 and 102,” Eliud jokes. We share chicken sausage, smoked pork with onions, and tostones, which I prefer with the “sauce” (mayo and ketchup mixed together) but David likes simply salted.It’s raining and getting dark as we head to our final stop at Caldosos Bar & Restaurant in Naranjito, just a short drive from El Rancho. There’s a live band and kids are playing on cell phones while their parents dance. “We need to take salsa lessons before our next trip,” I remind David. We order a bottle of the house made sangria after they tell us a bottle is cheaper than two glasses, and I’m enjoying my first real drink of the afternoon when our new friends start laughing at the song the band is singing.

“Wait for it!” Eliud says as they all lean in waiting for the chorus. Earlier that day, David had introduced me to Victor and his wife as his friend instead of girlfriend, and I had given him a hard time. “Your friend? Really?” We had joked about it as I went on to explain to the group that we’re actually a couple and even live together. When the chorus comes, Eliud translates for us as the band sings in Spanish. “Friends don’t kiss on the lips. Friends don’t sleep in the same bed.” Everyone is pointing at David and laughing, and he hugs me, shrugging and laughing along, before we jump back in our cars to head north to Bayamón.Eliud and his friends are stopping here for pizza (and presumably more drinks), but we beg off, knowing we still have a drive to reach our hotel in Dorado and are expected at Tía Isa’s house even further west in Vega Baja the next day. We had set off on our Chinchorreo tour at eleven in the morning, and by the time we check into our hotel it’s nearly eleven at night. Two twelve-hour days in a row of drinking, eating, laughing, family and fun have left us exhausted and we fall quickly into a deep, hard sleep that night.A visit to Vega Baja hadn’t been in our plans when we arrived in Puerto Rico, but Tía Isa had been so sad to say goodbye to David at the pig roast and had pleaded with us to come to her house, so we had agreed to go for lunch at noon on Monday. I know that Tío Luis, Tité, Eliud, and José will be there as well, but I’m not expecting others.Isa and Johnny live in a modest house near the northern coast in central Puerto Rico, very close to the beach. They added on a large master bedroom to the back of the house and use the extended carport on the side as a covered breezeway. As soon as I see the bar set up, I know they are expecting another large group of extended family and it’s game on for another party. Johnny has his own moonshine concoctions lined up, and he quickly offers David a shot of the pistachio version. I’ve brought my own bottle of cava, still intimidated by the moonshine, but Johnny shows me the iced bottle of cava he’s already set out for me. I’m touched that he thought to do this and accept a glass from him. Throughout the day I notice a steady stream of people doing a shot of something from the bar – Títo’s vodka, Johnny Walker whiskey, and the pistachio moonshine seem to be most popular.Inside the kitchen the tías have been at it again. I see sliced jamón with pineapple and a sweet glaze, arroz con gandules, potato salad, and carne frita with onions. I have no willpower when it comes to food, especially when experiencing a new culture and cuisine. I’ve eaten an unhealthy amount of fried food and meat over the past few days, so am relieved when I notice there a salad of shredded lettuce, cabbage, watercress and sliced tomatoes. The container seems small for a party, so knowing there might be dozens of people stopping by, I take only a tiny portion. When I notice that every other person has passed on the salad, I fill my plate with a large pile of greens, my body craving vegetables.

I had thought we were just coming for lunch, but we don’t leave until nearly eight at night, as one by one, more cousins get off from work and come by to see David. He’s heard of some of them or met some years ago, but many are strangers. His extended family here in Puerto Rico is vast, and he spends most of the day moving from one person to another as they continue to call for him. “Dabey!”Throughout the day I bounce between people, settling in with those who speak English (José or his girlfriend or Eliud or one of the kids) when it’s too hard to try to communicate with the Spanish speakers, then spending time with the tías and trying my best to speak to them in Spanish. They share jokes and more than a few off-color stories that make the tías howl. There is music, singing, and of course, shots of moonshine all day long. At one point when David tries to decline the shot offered to him by Johnny, a seven-year-old second or third cousin with flawless English looks him right in the eye and says, “Take it!” They learn young, I muse.

Before we leave that night, Tía Isa begs us once again to stay the night with them. She’s literally clinging to David, asking him not to leave, while Johnny shows me the guest bedroom. At one point, Isa even offers that they will give up their master bed for us so we can be more comfortable. I’m heartbroken, because I realize that despite their extended family in Puerto Rico, they are lonely. Johnny’s son died just a month before and Isa’s siblings live far enough away in Caguas that she doesn’t see them that much. Isa is only 10 years older than David, and she clearly adores him. I’m torn, ready to enjoy a day at the beach with David after three days with his family, but guilty about leaving Isa and Johnny alone. Before we drive away, we promise we’ll be back soon, and I realize we need to plan a longer trip next year so we’ll have enough time with everyone.Our original itinerary for visiting Puerto Rico was more touristy, with plans to spend our days at the beach in the Condado region east of old San Juan and our nights at the San Sebastián Festival in town. Instead, we spent the first two days with David’s family, at Toro Verde riding the famous zip line and at Casa Bacardí taking a distillery tour and mixology class, and the next three full days immersed with his extended family for the pig roast at Luis’s, the chinchorreo tour, and the party at Isa’s.The latter part of our trip was supposed to be our downtime, where we had planned to relax alone at a beach resort in Ponce on the southern shore of the island. After spending days with his mom’s side of the family, it would be a chance for David to see where his dad’s family lived, and to explore the small towns along the coast in that area.But just three weeks earlier, earthquakes began hitting in the waters off the coast, and a 6.4 level quake just the week before left this region badly damaged with road closures and power outages, causing us to modify our plans and stay on the north side of the island instead.Many people were displaced from their homes, living in tents, without food and water, so when we noticed that the World Central Kitchen, started by Chef José Andrés, had set up for relief work in the area, we signed up to work a day as volunteers. We leave Dorado early in the morning, not knowing what sort of traffic or road closures we might encounter and drive south past Caguas and then east on the southern shore to the outskirts of Ponce, where WCK had set up their relief kitchen.During the morning we make thousands of sandwiches in a long assembly line – a slice of bread, a squirt of mayo, two slices of cheese, 3 slices of ham or turkey, and another squirt of mayo, topped with another slice of bread. Volunteers load the sandwiches onto sheet pans and take them to the other long table where we wrap them in parchment paper and seal them for delivery. WCK recently learned of a school with no means to provide food for their students, so we’re making an extra 250 sandwiches today for them.As we work, we chat with the other volunteers, about half of whom are like us, foreigners on vacation who were compelled to help in some way. The others are local Ponce residents, and I’m surprised that some have been helping nonstop since the kitchen set up. One of the women working with us sustained major damage to her home yet is here making sandwiches right alongside us. I had seen the news before we left home and understood the skepticism on the part of Puerto Ricans that the government would do anything to help them. They are intent on helping themselves, knowing they can count on each other more than they can the government. When Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico two years prior, the entire island was affected, leaving everyone to fend for themselves. But with the earthquakes affecting only this southern coastal area, Puerto Ricans from other parts of the island have been coming to help. Just the week before, several of David’s aunts and cousins put together food, water, and paper products and delivered them directly to the people in the encampments on the hills.We break for a short lunch delivered from WCK’s hot kitchen nearby, which gives us a chance to talk to a young teenager from Ponce who is volunteering with her dad this morning. She describes the big earthquake and how terrifying it was to be woken at four in the morning and try to find her way out of the house in the dark. “I don’t get paralyzed in these situations,” she says, “but my mom couldn’t move. We had to drag her out of the house.” She tells us she sleeps with a weighted blanket that is quite heavy, but that her adrenaline was so high she was able to heave the blanket all the way across the room when the quake woke her.After lunch, we start making salads. Carrots, lettuce, tomatoes and onions all need to be cleaned and cut. Since I work in commercial kitchens, I volunteer for the onions, knowing most will opt for something else. David and I top, tail, quarter and peel a thirty-pound bag of red onions, then David rinses them under water before I run them through the slicing blade of the food processor. I’m confused, knowing it’s not necessary to wash peeled onions for food safety reasons, but later in the day the WCK chef explains to me that they try to create food that matches the dietary preferences of the people they are serving. Puerto Ricans, he tells me, don’t care for the strength of raw onions, and rinsing them helps remove some of that bite.After the onions, David works with two women from Ponce to clean a seemingly endless supply of white button mushrooms. I dump them into a large bowl then run them through the food processor to slice them. I’m working beside a man from England and an American man who has lived in Ponce for twenty years who are peeling and shredding carrots. The ingredients must be prepped like this every day before the salad assembly can begin.

In the beginning WCK was preparing food for 15,000 meals a day, but now it’s down to 9,000, and the staff tells me the need is lessening each day. The earthquake activity has also been subsiding, so they aren’t sure how much longer they will be here. Chef Alejandro Perez is from Puerto Rico, born and raised in Bayamón, and previously worked at a restaurant in Dorado. After Maria wiped out that establishment, he signed on with WCK. Now he travels the world to direct the work in makeshift kitchens like this one in Puerto Rico, Indonesia, Haiti, and Colombia.I ask him if the food is donated but learn WCK buys everything through the foundation. “We have fairly high standards for what we use, so prefer to source ourselves,” he says. When I ask where their funding comes from, he tells me all private donations. Given my own involvement in fundraising for several nonprofits, I’m impressed, and tell him it helps to have such a great man like José Andrés as the face for the organization. Even so, he explains, they struggle sometimes against local governments, who seem frustrated that a private entity better respond to the disasters than the local politicos are sometimes able to.We assemble the salads in aluminum hotel pans – a bed of chopped lettuce, topped with lines of tomatoes, onions, corn, mushrooms, and carrots. The salads are gorgeous, and Lucy, who directs the volunteers, explains to me that it’s important to make the food look appetizing. “We want to do more than simply feed these people. We want to boost their dignity, so we don’t just throw food into containers.”David and I had planned to drive around the area before leaving, but with so many road closures and half of downtown Ponce blocked off due to the risk from falling structures, it’s not really feasible. Besides, we’ve been on our feet for six hours straight in the kitchen and we still need to drive back to Caguas in time to have dinner with Tío Luis, Tité, Eliud, and his daughter Naomi. As we drive east toward the hills, we see the encampments of tents outside of Ponce where people are staying, still afraid to return to their homes. We hold hands, both of us grateful for our life and home together.

When we get to Caguas, Tité has dinner ready and we sit down to a typical Puerto Rican family meal of roast beef, rice, beans, and salad with tomato and avocado. Eliud brings out a couple family photo albums and he and David spend time looking at old pictures from their childhood, when Luis and Tité brought their boys to go to Disneyland with David’s family in California. We all laugh at the clothes and hairstyles; David and Eliud smile at the memories. Eliud removes the photos from David’s parents’ 39th anniversary party in Puerto Rico so David can take them home to share with his siblings and kids.Before we leave, Tité calls me into the kitchen and hands me a small plastic bag of chopped herbs and I realize she’s made me a starter kit for my sofrito. “Muchas gracias,” I say, touched at how she has welcomed me into this large extended family. Then I see her reach into the refrigerator. “Gandules,” she says, smiling at me, as she hands me a bag of pigeon peas. She explains she picked them from the tree herself and has already cleaned them for me. I hug her as she tells me in Spanish that she loves me. “Te quiero.”Our time on the island has been so busy that we’ve had no time to explore, and little time to see the beauty of the various beaches that line the island. So, when David’s cousin offers to show us around the eastern coast, we agree to meet at his house on our last day. Although José moved to Puerto Rico a couple years ago to be closer to his father Pepin, his girlfriend grew up in this area, in the hills around Naguabo, and knows much more about navigating the area and where the best views are.We check out of our hotel in Dorado and head east, stopping in the Luquillo Beach area for lunch. There’s a strip of kioskos here right along the frontage road that house some highly recommended food joints, and we meander down the row until we find one that looks good. The strip reminds me of the food halls in Denver if you just took all the restaurants out of the building and lined them up along a pristine section of sandy beach along the Caribbean.We gorge ourselves on fried goat cheese with guava sauce, mahi mahi with mango salsa and sautéed onions, rabbit stew, rice, beans, and tostones. The owner brings us almond flan for dessert and although we shouldn’t, we eat the whole thing. After lunch we snap some photos out on the beach, and then drive ten minutes further to Fajardo to meet José and his girlfriend.Together we head north to the point, where the famous Conquistador Hotel is situated, but we aren’t allowed past the gates because seventy percent of the property is still under construction after Hurricane Maria ripped it apart two years ago. We drive down to the beach behind the hotel, but nearly every kiosko or building is damaged or closed. The pretty beach area and park are empty, even though it’s a gorgeous sunny Friday afternoon. The views across the turquoise sea to a small island are expansive and inviting, yet nobody’s here to enjoy it.José and his girlfriend keep pointing out bars and restaurants and telling us how great they used to be, before the hurricane. It’s a complex problem to rebuild – many Puerto Ricans left the island after Maria, many businesses were destroyed, there’s little government money to repair even the most basic infrastructure, and between the hurricane and now the earthquakes, tourists are skittish about visiting. The sensationalized media reports don’t help, and David and I vow to carry the message home that not only is Puerto Rico open for business, but the island is alluring, delicious, and safe.From Fajardo we head south to Naguabo, and the malecón there is the same – mostly deserted, even though it’s now 4:30 on a Friday afternoon, the time when the bars and kioskos should be crowded with people ordering food and drinks. We wander, eat some grouper and arepas de coco, which taste like cookies, then head to the car to return to Fajardo.On the drive back we talk about the options for Puerto Rico. Sovereignty for the island seems impossible, as that would only worsen their financial challenges. Yet statehood seems equally implausible. There are currently no property taxes in Puerto Rico and it’s nearly certain that would change with statehood. Which leaves the island caught in the middle, without the financial support from the US they need to rebuild, and without the means to raise funds themselves. Further, the complicated tax structure for businesses makes it nearly impossible for small business owners to survive. The result is one boarded up business after another in small coastal towns that seem unlikely to ever rebound.We make one last stop in the Fajardo central plaza since David and I haven’t yet seen a single city plaza in our ten-day visit. There’s a pretty whitewashed church in the center of the plaza, surrounded by statues, fountains, tiled paths, and benches. The plaza is flanked along one entire side by the Spanish style government offices, washed in blue paint with white trim. It’s spectacularly beautiful, but it’s deserted. At 5:30 on Friday night every single building surrounding the plaza, and throughout the town for that matter, are closed, some probably permanently based on how badly they are ripped apart from hurricane damage.I’ve carried the gandules from Tité with me for the past three days, icing them down when we’re driving, moving them from freezer to freezer in hotels, leaving myself notes so I won’t forget them. I’m looking forward to learning David’s mother’s recipe for arroz con gandules and cooking with his family once we’re home. As we go through security, while I’m getting a full body pat down, my tote bag is flagged for inspection. My throat tightens slightly when the TSA agent pulls out the bag of gandules and unwraps them. “Ah, gandules,” he says smiling. I’m worried he’s going to confiscate them, but he closes the bag and puts it back into my tote before sending me on my way to the gate.

As I board the plane, my heart is full because I’m leaving this island of enchantment feeling more than a just little Boricua. Until next year, muchas gracias Puerto Rico. Te quiero mucho!