Story Collected by Sarah Hernandez
My grandma on my mother’s side of my family grew up in Puerto Rico. She spent most of her early years on the island and moved to New York City by the time she was starting middle school. My grandma loves to brag about how she grew up in the Bronx, not just the Bronx, but the real Bronx. Her brothers, mother, and grandmother were the only Latino family on her block – everyone else was Italian or European Jews. She would reminisce about walking down the street with her brothers to the Jewish deli to eat fresh cold cuts during the hot summer days. She feels toughened up by reality on the streets and always thought of herself as the tomboy. The children worked at a young age, and her mother worked multiple jobs in order to only make the minimum to provide for the family.
She recalled one instance where everyone was around the table, ready for dinner. The kids brought home a special treat – hamburgers. Their grandmother slapped down her hand loudly on the table in rejection.
NO HAMBURGUESAS ON THE TABLE!
The kids retorted, “ but they just taste so good!!”
The lecture followed,
"You don’t know what’s in that hamburger! Have you seen the cows? You don’t know where they make it. You don’t know if the machine is clean! You don’t know what the cow eats. If you want to eat that, you need to have a cow yourself. Have your own chickens and have food from your own farm!!"
My grandmother’s grandmother was born in Spain and represented the first generation of the family that migrated from Spain to Puerto Rico and then finally to the United States. She was born in 1870 and essentially spent her whole young adulthood in the 19th century, when the island was still under Spanish rule; she even lived to see her country gain independence from Spain and become a US colony. This woman lived to be 93 years old and has certainly experienced the changing tides and continuing migration and transformation of her culture.
What surprised me the most was that her dinner table rant represents values that are relevant in today’s culture. The last significant cultural shift with respect to homegrown food was during World War II with the development of victory gardens as a way for families to be self-sustaining during a time of economic drought. These ideals are rising once again with the popularity of organic food and community gardens – “going green” and being “eco-friendly.”
My grandma fondly remembers the short-lived time she had spent with her own grandmother. She would visit her grandmother’s family farm in Puerto Rico every summer, where this woman was nurturing every possible thing that anyone consumed at the dinner table. My grandma was always given the task of both collecting chicken eggs, then chasing and catching the chickens for dinner preparation.
In the past couple of years, with my grandfather’s declining health, my grandma took it upon herself (as a personal, very New Yorker as she would say, ‘screw you’ to the medical system) to completely change her diet and style of cooking for herself, my grandpa, and my little five-year old brother. She has learned to despise medication and the healthcare system and believes that eating processed foods and less vegetables cause more ailments to the body than we really know. She thinks of herself as the crazy grandma from the Bronx, attributing her own beliefs about being sustainable and healthy to her own grandmother.
Now these stories and traditions are being passed down to me. The most striking thing to me is the ebb and flow of these beliefs, how at least in my family they are passed down to every second generation. It seems to reflect the ebb and flow of the culture around gardening and fresh food, from industrial to organic, from the late 1800s to the early 2000s.