LIFESTYLE

Passover: Memories of a Cuban Exile

After matzo, gefilte fish, and matzo ball soup, nothing says Passover to me more than white rice with black beans, fried plantains, and flan. This is because I am a Jubana, a Cuban-born Jew. My parents are both Jubanos, too. 

After Castro’s revolution, in the ’60s, we emigrated to Washington, D.C. to begin a new life. What comforted me was that we were together; everything else was a shock: The snowy November weather, the separation from our friends and the rest of our family, the fact that nobody but us spoke Spanish. Also, we’d become indigent. Castro had confiscated our Havana house, everything in the house, my father’s business, and my family’s bank accounts.

As winter gave way to spring and our first American Passover approached, my Reform Jewish mother was determined to see our native traditions through. Being new refugees in this country, the ancient holiday commemorating the exodus from slavery in Egypt to freedom in Israel was different than our previous ones at home, and therefore more poignant. 

There, in Cuba, a Seder without black beans just wasn’t a Seder. (Actually, any dinner without our favorite legume would’ve been unthinkable.) Here, in the United States, finding the more typical Passover fare at the local Safeway for the Seder plate was easy – horseradish (symbolizing the sharp bitterness of Jews’ experience as slaves in Egypt), parsley (dipped in salt water, it represents tears shed over the pain of bondage), haroseth (evoking the mortar used by Jewish slaves to build Egyptian storehouses, it’s a mixture of apples, nuts, wine, cinnamon, and honey), matzo (what happens to bread when you flee Egypt in a hurry and can’t wait for it to rise), a shank bone (for the sacrificial lamb offered in thanks to God at the Holy Temple in Jerusalem), and a hard-boiled egg (a emblem of immortality, and sometimes mourning, as it's given at funerals).

But what about the other musts for our Passover table? Whither our beloved frijoles negros (black beans), platanítos maduros (ripe plantains), and Naranja Agria (sour orange mojito for marinating the chicken)? My mom asked some of the neighbors in our Southwest, D.C., apartment building if they knew of a bodega where she could find these basic things. The collective response: “Whuuut?”

“We are going to cruise aroun’ and find dees stuff on our own,” Mami told me. “God ees Cuban too, and God wants us to have eet.”

We borrowed a friend’s car and drove to the Adams Morgan neighborhood in Northwest, where Mami’d heard Latinos lived. Sure enough, there was a Hispanic bodega, on Columbia Road and 18th Street. I was just a tiny kid at the time but I can still recall how intense it was to walk into that packed little store and suddenly smell home: the oozing ripeness of sweet papayas, mangoes, guavas, sugar cane, avocados, pineapples, coconuts . . . It was overwhelming and deep. For the first time in five months, since we’d reluctantly fled our homeland, everything made sense. It was like the miracle of the exodus in the Bible. Bags upon bags of black beans, bushels of green and yellow and black plantains, an entire shelf full of bottles of Naranja Agria. Caramba!

“Ees all about perseestance,” Mami said, placing three plastic bags of black beans, five black plantains (the black ones are ripe for frying), a bottle of Naranja Agria, and a coconut into our cart. “That’s our past heestory and that’s our current reality. There weel be black beans for Passover. And platanítos. And big fat flan. A coconut flan.”

“We can have a flan, too?” I cried.

“We can have whatever we want,” she said. “Passover’s about leeberation. And guess what? Flan ees perfect. No flour.”

Gigi Anders is the author of "Jubana!" (HarperCollins, 2005) and "Little Pink Raincoat" (HarperCollins, 2007). She's working on her third book.

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