My living room has the usual markers of a college hipster crash pad, the alcohol bottles as decorations on the wall, the collection of musky used vinyl records, the stacks of books on the shelves. But my room has one important outlier: On the wall, encased over a Spiderman II poster, is a soccer jersey, the signatures now faded from years of proud display.
It’s the Ecuadorian national team of 2010—a neon yellow shirt with dashes of red and blue around the national seal as their canvas. In the center is a signature from my favorite soccer player Ivan “Bam Bam” Hurtado. As a below-average rec soccer player, Hurtado was my hero. What I lacked in ball skills I made up for in quickness and a determination that was (and still is) equal parts foolish pride and a complete lack of self-preservation.
Naturally, my coach had me play defense.
The only problem for a young defender looking for role models is that there are not that many notable players to model yourself after. The glory usually goes to those who score the goals, not to those who stop the shots crossing the goal line. While watching the Ecuadorian national team live on TV with my mother and grandmother, I realized that Hurtado, a defender, was their captain.
There was hope.
My mom, whose parents moved here from the small South American nation in the 1950s, saw my burgeoning fandom and called up a relative in the city of Guayaquil who worked for the national team. Weeks later there it was in all its glory. I wore it once and realized I could never wear it again. What if an errant splash of tomato sauce or something marred it forever?
Hurtado’s jersey is an instant reminder of my family, which then sparks another, less intangible memory: the smell of my grandmother’s cooking.
Culinary historian Michael Twitty wrote in his fantastic book “The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South” that “people use food to tell themselves who they are, to tell others who they are and to tell stories about where they’ve been.”
I come from a long line of fantastic cooks. Two of my family members on my mother’s side, one in Ecuador and one in Ohio, have created restaurants. The last time I went to Ecuador at the age of 12, I remember going to my cousin’s hole in the wall eatery in Guayaquil, La Chinita.
The name is a reference to two things, a distant Chinese relative in my family’s past and my cousin’s nickname as a child. She, like many of my family members, have epicanthic folds that give the eyes a slanted appearance, a trait stereotyped as Asian but common in Native American populations as well. Guayaquil is the largest city in Ecuador, a bustling city of two million people on the coast. My cousin got much of her business by catering to local office and business events. Outside of family, the aspect of the city that most excited my childhood imagination was Parque Seminario or Parque de las Iguanas. Despite being in the center of downtown, right outside of the Catedral Metropolitana De Guayaquil, the park is home to dozens of iguanas freely roaming its grounds.
In Ecuador, where plantains are the staple crop, farms growing the banana-like fruit that’s often cooked like a vegetable line the coast. Tostones y queso or fried green plantain slices/chips and cheese were a constant presence in my house growing up. At La Chinita, I saw the origin of my grandmother’s love for soup when a scalding hot dish of Caldo de bolas de Verde, a plantain dumpling soup, arrived at my table.
My favorite dish from home, the thing I always ask for when I drive back for a weekend, is Sango de atun. It is a dish made of grated green plantains, refrito, fresh cilantro and a can of tuna served over rice. Simple and delicious despite resembling baby food. To me, there is nothing like the warm savory plantain meeting the meatiness of tuna with an acidic splash of lemon juice or hot sauce.
As long as that splash is nowhere near my Hurtado jersey.
Now that I’ve written some stories about where I’ve been and who I am, I invite all of you to do the same. Hispanic Heritage month starts on Saturday, Sept. 15. I can only speak to a small fraction of the Hispanic American experience, so I want to invite anyone reading this to consider The Observer a forum for your story. Talk about a dish that fills your soul, something that reminds you of home and family. If you want to share your own story, consider these pages that you hold in your hand, or this website that you see on your screen a place to do so.
I cannot wait to read about your story, in the words of Univision astrologer Walter Mercado, “con mucho mucho amor.”