Angelina Altagracia Vargas
Me: "Maaaaaaa, tengo hambre!"
Mami: "Ah, pues bebe agua."
Uff, besides my grandfather responding, "Ah, pues duermete y así no tienes hambre," that was the worst response my mother could’ve given me when I was hungry.
Growing up, I was always gordita and hungry, or so I thought. I probably confused boredom with hunger most of the time. Even so, my mother's response was always clever, which made me speculate: Dominicans don't believe in snacks.
Think about it, usually for desayuno it's—tres golpe, una avenita, or guineitos con bacalao guisao. Lunch was ready by noon, otro heavy meal—la bandera Dominicana or una berenjena guisa con salami, habichuelas y arroz blanco, yummm. Dinner could be frituras or un sandwich de eso, de salami y cheddar cheese.
But in between that? No snacks. Dominicans don't believe in snacks.
Yes, there were the patelitos, salami and cheese, and crackers with mayo/butter and cheese. Still, those hors d'oeuvres were usually reserved for special occasions like birthdays, hora santas, or noche buena.
Dominican moms be like "vengan niños!" every time food is ready. It's a tradition my mom and aunts got from their father when he raised 7 chamaquitos in La Capital with his wife.
When Dominicans arrive in the U.S., they question eurocentric eating habits. My mom and aunts would tease us and ask, "Que merienda ni merienda, espera la comida o la cena." Whenever I came across my friend's moms or other Dominicans, I found it fascinating how they had a similar habit.
As I'm writing this narrative about my family's relationship with Dominican food, I think about our gastronomy's impact on the conceptualization of race, specifically Black consciousness. Whenever I say "tengo hambre!" it's always "Ah, pues bebe agua" and never "here's a step-by-step analysis on how the conquistadors gentrified our food and used it to the island's inhumanity and demise." In society, we barely talk about food poverty, including food inflation and lack of food quality in Black and Brown neighborhoods.
I’ve always been in awe of how food has been a unifying factor in our culture and how giving we are through food. Whenever we go on a gira, best believe we have calderos full of food to sustain us anywhere we're at—Los 7 Lagos, Six flags, or Coney Island. When we host fiestas de palos or un maní, we have chivo con moro negro and ensalada de papa on deck for us and for the santos. It's a culture of giving, of "everybody eats, b," in the best Ace from Paid in Full fashion.
Speaking of nobody pasando hambre, we were broke when we first moved from Washington Heights to The Bronx in '98. The only furniture we had were those foldable twin-sized beds, and we were in that confusing transitioning stage where my mom and aunts were applying for food stamps—a steep risk they took as they were undocumented.
Pues, one day we were hungry, like mad hungry. All we had was $12 in coins (mainly in pennies), and we walked to the supermarket to buy a bag of rice, oil, and eggs. That day, my mother and aunts managed to feed 3 adults and 4 toddlers con arroz blanco y huevo.
Ironically, my aunt told me that story on a Saturday while preparing the same meal. I told her how much I abhorred arroz con huevo growing up because of its "plainness." She reasoned that the meal was a Dominican hack making it possible to feed en masse.
Nowadays, that's my go-to meal when money is tight. I even garnish it with some parsley to remind me of the significance of food on the Ayití island.
Food has always been a communal element in my family, in every season of our lives. In Nueva Yol, these seasons are rough too. That "vengan niños!" was the best thing we could hear because it meant that, yes, we will be eating today despite the poverty and how "mala la cosas estan."
That "vengan niños" would hit so hard those sleepover nights! It was a melody to my cousins' and my ears. My mom and aunts would feed us domplines con hot dogs or salami, espaguetis con pan, or los tres golpe—all food "que rinden," like they would say.
They were also words we anticipated hearing outside the house because although those words originated inside our 2-bedroom apartment, they had no static settings. They would transcend physical space and travel to amusement parks, church trips, school events, and Claremont Park in The Bronx. Barbeques and block parties would always feed the whole block; again, "everybody eats, b!"
Me: "Maaaaaaa, tengo hambre!"
Mami: "Ah, pues bebe agua."
Words I miss now more than ever. They've now turned into:
Me: "Mami, tienes hambre? Voy a comprar comida."
Mami: "Si pero no te preocupes que yo pongo un arroz a hervir ahí y despues se averigua la acompaña."
Something about those words makes me sad and nostalgic because despite us, los muchachos, growing up and earning an income, the things we made out of poverty just feels wholesome. Latching on to the aspirations of better days was enough.
Better days that now don't seem as glamorous as we had imagined on those cold winter days, when we would whip out the pan Italianos con un chocolaton (hot cocoa with oatmeal) as our best resort to staying warm.
Now it's just us ordering food for delivery from our phones and growing frustrated because they messed up our orders yet another time. It's not the same, just as Willie Colón and Héctor Lavoe warned us, "todo tiene su final."
Times change, and we all grow up, but I will forever be grateful for how Dominican moms be like "barriga llena, corazon contento," I think that's the most beautiful thing I've ever heard my mom and aunts say. It signifies the joy food gives us. These words speak for all the times we told our mothers we were hungry and they, no matter what, whipped something out for us despite the circumstances.
Angelina Altagracia Vargas is an Afro Dominican storyteller, educator, and agent of change from The Bronx. She graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Critical Foundations of Education and a Bachelor of Arts in Women and Gender Studies from Syracuse University. Angelina received a Master of Science in Education in Bilingual Childhood Education from The City College of New York. She taught for three years in the NYC DOE K-12 system and is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in Urban Education at The University of Maryland. Her focus is on expanding the scholarship and visibility of AfroLatinx students. When she’s not reading or making cooking videos, you can find her traveling around the world or studying at a nearby café.