Let me start by telling you about the empanada. It’s delicious. How could it not be? An empanada is made by stuffing a piece of thin dough with your choice of filling (meat, fruit, cheese), sealing the edge with a fork and deep frying. I grew up in Cuba where these stuffed pastries were a staple–especially during New Years. All the kids used to help make buñuelos con almibar (ground casava/malanga pretzels coated in syrup) and empanadas which were usually stuffed with picadillo (ground meat) and guava and cheese. To this day when I bite into an empanada, I am tasting a little bit of home. When I moved out of West New York, NJ, a town dominated by Latinos, to North Arlington, which is primarily Italian, it became a little harder to find good Cuban food and empanadas. Calzones just aren’t the same.
North Arlington is not that far (15-20 minutes from West New York), and so it wasn’t a big deal. When I went to visit my parents in West New York, I’d get my fix of Cuban food.
Fast forward 15 years. I moved out of North Arlington to upstate NY. My husband and I bought a place in the woods and settled in a community which was vastly different from both the places I had previously lived in. I won’t bore you with obstacles that we faced living in a rural area or of all the changes that we underwent as city people. Suffice it to say that it was weird.
Even though NY State went Democratic, my county voted predominantly for Trump. There aren’t that many Latinos where I live now, and there are times when going to the local coffee shop feels like an episode of Children of the Corn. It’s odd for me since for most of my life I’ve been surrounded by brown-eyed, brown-haired people who tend to speak at least two languages and whose values (as immigrants) veer towards toleration and inclusiveness.
This election cycle was dominated by ugliness, bigotry, corruption, fear, and uncertainty. Friends broke up; families broke up, people got divorced, coworkers argued, crimes were committed. In short, it’s been insane.
Like most, I am in a strange place. While I am horrified that Trump won with his hate-filled rhetoric, I am not sad that Hillary lost. Bernie was my candidate of choice; a candidate that I felt was marginalized by the DNC and the Clintons. Alas, I digress. There is enough bought news, fake news and all kinds of news out there to substantiate however you feel about this election. That’s not the point of this article.
Since Trump won, I’ve been paying attention to his cabinet picks to see if there is any hope to be had. I am desperately looking for the silver lining, but with Bannon on board followed by Sessions, Flynn and evil Rudy, it does seem like the apocalypse is soon approaching for anyone who isn’t male, old and white.
What does this have to do with empanadas?
I’ll tell you.
Today I went to town to mail a package, then hopped over to the gas station across the street to grab something for lunch. The gas station is run by a Sufi (Muslim) family who has recently started cooking to supplement their income. They cook up fantastic Indian food along with American staples like hamburgers and fries. They also happen to make the best damn Cuban empanadas I’ve ever had (anywhere!). It turns out that the gas station manager and his wife lived in Union City for many years and picked up a taste for Caribbean cooking. Their picadillo is juicy and savory, and it’s got raisins and cumin and is every bit as yummy as something my grandma would make.
While I was waiting for my empanadas (they make them fresh) I struck up a conversation with Vernon who was waiting for his cheeseburger. Vernon is African American. He used to live in Queens and now works at the local post office which I frequent on a daily basis. In spite of the long lines, Vernon is always ready to offer a smile and ask me how my day is going. Through the course of several years, we’ve become acquainted.
Vernon was there with a friend who was from the Dominican Republic. After brief introductions, all three of us we were soon gushing about the empanadas and how happy we were to find good latin food in our home town. After Vernon and his friend left, a blonde wearing riding boots and riding pants came in and ordered Indian. In my town when you see people wearing riding gear, it’s not a fashion statement, they actually do work with horses. This woman, who I took to be a regular based on how she interacted with the gas station manager, was every bit what some would consider a privileged white woman. She was followed by a several farmer types who bought cigarettes and drinks, an older man who purchased a newspaper, a bearded metrosexual (for lack of a better term who runs the local craft beer place), and lastly, a shorter, dark-skinned man of Mayan or Incan ancestry (if I had to guess).
The man who rang me up was Colombian. And when I mentioned to the manager that his empanadas were the best, a heavy-set, white man who had just come in chimed in. “They are great, aren’t they? Have you been by that new Puerto Rican place that opened up?”
I smiled and shook my head. “Not yet, it’s on my list. Have a good one.”
It took about ten minutes for my empanadas to be made, but what I witnessed in that sliver of time gave me hope. This country might be two separate empanadas right now, but our filling is the same. We are all human, and while we are imperfect, all of us have the capacity to coexist. Standing in that gas station convenience store and seeing all of those people come through and be nice to each other (even at such a divisive time) made me happy.
I ate my empanadas in the sun, feeling as if I could finally breathe.
We do not live in the America Trump says we live in. We live in a country whose strength is its diversity. For all of the negative things, you hear in the news there are a million other moments (like mine) which will never be reported.
In closing, I’d like to add that the fact that my small epiphany occurred at a gas station was not lost on me. If there is one area where I do feel that our newest president will fail is in safeguarding our planet. But, here’s some good news. Not a single person that bought something at this gas station while I was there, bagged their items. Most refused, and at least three mentioned something about not wanting to use plastic bags. Perhaps my town is more conscious of these issues, I can’t really weigh in with numbers. Regardless, it was really nice to see.
For every pathetic instance where I have experienced discrimination and ugliness, there have been tenfold moments of human kindness and compassion. Maybe, I have been lucky. I often feel blessed.
I often give thanks.
Today proved to me that the answer is not in tuning in and feeding that machine of hatred and lies, but rather, to spread love and kindness and joy wherever we go, whenever we can. We have far more in common than we believe.