by Angel Rosario Jr.
The sancocho wasn’t the only thing cooking that summer day. Mami, ni papi, tenian un chin de idea de lo que yo estaba preparando. The cocoon our family created for the last 32 years en el apartamento 10K in Harlem had successfully protected us from the drug deals lurking outside our door, the piss and shit brewing in the staircase, and each other.
Under our popcorn ceiling, the piping-hot aromas erupting from the thousand-year-old thick stew constantly battled and won against the outside smells. Thicker than a snicker, it spread unapologetically, proudly letting whatever it encountered know it was not to be fucked with. And let’s be honest; how could anything or anyone even try? How are you gonna contest Dominicans’ arguably greatest dish? One that has been around for as long as we know and has been present for as long as Dominoes, Anacoana, or el fuku. And the time! The time, energy, sweat and tears it takes to prepare: cortando zanahorria, cebolla, papa, yuca, auyama, hechandole todo los especies que se conoce en el mundo, rebanadas de lo que se yo (y que se yo de hacer un sanchocho?), el monton de carne y pollo- O- y mi favorito - el platano.
Esa sopa ya tenia horas herviendo en preparacion. El sancocho estaba listo y tambien yo.
The spew of spiced fumes was on the HOV lane out of the kitchen. Driving down the hall, it passed the biggest cuadro of Jesu Cristo—the one with an all-too-familiar bleeding sacred heart—zipping and hypnotizing the jealous cucarachas who we were in a constant world war; before it slid through the cracks of my poorly built, forever ajar, bedroom door and lastly into my fed-up newly college graduated-ass nostrils.
With all due respect, that sancocho had nothing on me. Because what I had been cooking in my 21-year-old pot was finally about to blow.
* * *
There was too much evidence not to see this coming. At eight, a big toalla trailed off behind me, stumbling on mami’s Payless pumps. At ten, when my oldest sister was forced to meet with Principal Lasena, they must have known. Mami no hablaba ingle to understand what the principal would reveal about the bullying, but how could she not interpret my daily cries at home? And then, years later, as a teenager, I would thank the big Watchtower clock on Brooklyn’s waterfront edge for saving me from mami’s wrath, peeking mid-kiss beyond the head of the Colombian boy I made out with on the Manhattan bridge that clock made sure I got home on time. But when I did arrive home, how didn’t she smell the cheap Adidas cologne rubbed up against me—I mean, shit, I didn’t even wear cologne! Y papi, RIP, when his late-night taxiing meant free drop-offs to “la cuarenti do”- what did he think I was doing? Drunk sinverguenzeria, skin fused along the fine men at the now defunct club, Escuelitas.
I was gay as fuck, and there was no doubt about it.
* * *
I sat in bed, contemplating the next significant life steps. At the University of Buffalo, I left New York City, the projects, mami, and papi, to allow myself the freedom to become who I was meant to be, safely and without judgment. I had already come out to my sisters and friends, been in the throes of a budding and quickly failed two-year relationship, and ultimately felt self-secure. Pero todavia, somehow, mami y papi no sabian na’- y yo estaba jarto.
I was watching True Life: I Live a Double-Life in bed when I was inspired by Chris, the queerest white man I’d ever seen on TV. Throughout the episode, he’d been anxious about revealing his identity to his best friend Holly, who straight-up said in her own 1:1 confessional with the cameraman, “I don’t know anyone who doesn’t know he’s gay.” Chris was afraid to admit his truth and still managed to do so; if I was not scared to reveal my own, why hadn’t I?
“Juniiii, ven a comer,” grito mami- her words riding on the coattails of the sanchochos trail.
* * *
Me llamo Angel pero mi familia me llama Junior.
The real Angel was a man, no more than two inches shorter than me—a neighborhood-friendly alpha male working as a janitor in Harlem’s Foster projects where I grew up. Papi was a good man but had drinking problems which got him into trouble, especially with my mami. His late-night returns home after work, sometimes with hues of red lipstick brushing the palate of his neck and garnished with a film of cheap perfume, were what did it for her. He was always a bit of a papi champu; indeed, a retired mujeriego in the earlier years of their marriage, handsome, charismatic, and dressed nicely. He also had firm beliefs about right and wrong and how one should present themselves in public— mami did too.
Unlike papi, however, mami had a precise fixation on the opinions of our family or the neighbors if word ever got out about any wrongdoing in our home. My older sisters became teenage moms, my dad’s alcoholism, and arguments in the house; there was a constant buzz que no hablaramos alto. “Baja la voz que la vecina va oir todo,” y “La gente le gusta hablar.” It was clear that mami had been hurt by papi, emotionally, mentally, and once, just once, physically. Later as an adult, I found out about mami’s family in DR being outcast for what her community called ‘una brujeria,’ really an infectious disease that killed several of her family members.
Not only had mami been hurt by papi, but she was also hurt by life.
I learned to keep my mouth shut at home.
* * *
I stood at the kitchen entrance, mami over the sancocho, and papi, shirtless as always, at the kitchen table. It couldn’t have been later than noon in the dimly lit room, light from a window shining on a refrigerator door saturated with an arrangement of decade-old fruit magnets. The weight of the sancocho’s steam was amplified under the peak sun of a June day. It was quiet for once.
“Le tengo que decir algo,” I said.
Mami instantly drops the ladle, bracing herself for what is next. Papi continues to eat his soup.
“Que e Junior, que e,” she questions uneasily.
“A mi no me gustan las mujeres. Soy gay,’” I say blankly.
Time stops and then speeds up again. Papi’s spoon, filled with sancocho when the words came out of my mouth, casually enters his own, and he continues to focus on the meal in front of him.
Mami launches towards me, arms outstretched, shaking me, “no, no puede ser, dime la verdad. Ay Jesus santisimo no puede ser.” She threw herself on the floor in tears, banging the floor and walls with tight fists, and yet amidst her suffering, all I felt was a relief.
Papi stood up from the kitchen, put on his shirt, looked down at mami, and said, “Mira mujer, parate del piso que ya sabemos. No es el final del mundo.”
He closed the door and left the apartment, leaving me behind with mami.
* * *
Despite never talking much at home, I loved to speak in school. I remember Mr. Mendez’s English Grammar class being the last thing between Power Rangers and me on Fox 5. When the bell rang, I ran outside and waited in the silent line outside the classroom. “I’m so glad that class is over,” I whispered to Jason, my best friend (not to be confused with the Red Ranger, of course). Right then, Mr. Mendez’s overwhelmingly rotund body came bulldozing toward me. He towered over me before leaning in, face to face, thundering, “I want silence in my line!” In terror, I instantly burst into tears as he walked away. We headed towards our parents, who were waiting downstairs when my father saw the lagrimas on my face; he asked, “Que paso?” After a sob-filled explanation, I saw his abdominal muscles tighten. With a roar that reverberated throughout New York City, he said, “nobadi touchy mi boi.” I felt protected. I felt safe.
* * *
Mami didn’t talk to me for weeks—- she couldn’t even look at me— but my relationship with papi transformed. In public spaces, among family, he supported me and shared his love for me more openly than ever. Although he never admitted this to me prior to his passing almost a year later, amidst a secretly declining health, I know he was responsible for mami eventually coming through.
Mi verdad, nuestra verdad, quebro nuestra verguenza.
Angel Rosario Jr is a Harlem-born and raised, Afro-Latine, gay, Dominican-American from Harlem. He is a doctor currently training in General Surgery who loves caring for the Washington Heights community. When not operating, he enjoys exploring his intersectional identities and culture and grappling with power/privilege disparities through memoir journaling. He loves throwing it back on the dance floor, traveling, and spending time with his partner. He obtained his medical degree from UCSF and his MPH from Harvard. “Batalla Sobre El Sancocho” is his first published piece. IG: @angelcurandero/Twitter: @angelrosariojr