There is a store I visit from time to time, for convenience’s sake or to indulge in nostalgia, where I can find all of Latin America on display.
Under the roof of one vast supermarket I savor the presence of the continent where I was born, go back, so to speak, to my own plural origins. On one shelf, Nobleza Gaucha, the yerba mate my Argentine parents used to sip every morning in their New York exile -- my mother with sugar, my father in its more bitter version. Even to contemplate the bag that this grass herb comes in, allows me to recall how anxiously mi mamá y mi papá awaited shipments from the authoritarian Buenos Aires they had escaped in the forties. A bit further along in the store, I come upon leche condensada en una lata, the sort I would sip from a can on adolescent camping trips into the mountains of Chile, where my family moved when I was twelve. And nearby, a tin of Nido, the powdered milk my wife Angélica and I first fed our son Rodrigo as a baby, almost half a century ago in Santiago. Or Nesquik para niños, the chocolate we relied on to sweeten the existence of our younger son Joaquín, when he accompanied us back to Chile after many years of exile from Pinochet’s dictatorship.
Origins, however, are never merely personal, but deeply collective, and especially so for Latin Americans such as myself, who feel an entrañable fellowship with natives from other unfortunate countries of our region. A stubborn history of thwarted dreams has led to a shared sense of purpose and sorrow, hope and resilience, which joins us all emotionally, beyond geographic destiny or national boundaries. To stroll up and down the grocery aisles of that store is to reconnect with the people and the lands and the tastebuds of those brothers and sisters and to partake, however vicariously, in meals being planned and prepared at that very moment in millions and millions of homes everywhere in the hemisphere. There is canela from Perú and queso crema from Costa Rica and café torrado e moido (O sabor do campo na sua casa) from Brasil. There is coconut juice from the Caribbean and frijoles of every possible and impossible variety and maíz tostado from Mexico and bunches of fresh apio/celery from the Dominican Republic (they look like tiny twisted idols) and hierbas medicinales para infusiones from who knows where, and albahaca and ajonjoli and linaza and yuca and malanga and chicharrones de cerdo and chicharrones de harina.
If you were to go to Sao Paolo or Caracas or Quito, if you were to try to shop for this assortment of staples or delicacies in San Salvador or La Paz or Bogotá, if you were to ask in any major or minor city of Latin America where you might be able to pick your way through such a plethora of culinary choices in one location, you would be told that a place like that does not exist anywhere in that country. There is no shop in Rio de Janeiro, for instance, that next to an array of carioca fare would allow you to select among eighteen multiplicities of chile peppers and buy Tampico punch and sample some casabe bread.
Where it does exist is in Durham, North Carolina, where our family has settled after many decades of wandering . It exists less than half a mile from our house in a grocery store sporting the name COMPARE – a name which cleverly works in Spanish and English and Portuguese. Who would have thought that in a small town States (population 233,252) of the Southern United there could be a greater representation of all Latin America than in Rio with its six and a half million inhabitants or in the megapolis of Ciudad de México with its twenty million.
As we commemorate the five hundred and twenty years of Cristobal Colón’s sighting of the land that would be called by some other visionary’s name, the sheer reality of a store like the one my wife and I visit in Durham (and there are dozens more like it all along the Eastern seaboard of the United States, from Massachusetts to South Carolina) resoundingly proves – if further proof were really needed – that the continent of Juárez and García Márquez and Eva Perón can no longer be understood to stop at the Rio Grande but extends far into the gringo North.
The food that hails me at that Latino megamarket is not, of course, something that you just sniff and peel, cook and devour. Hands reach for the potatoes that originated thousands of years ago in the Andean highlands, mouths water for the pineapple that the conquistadors did not know how to describe, bodies tremble at the thought of using their tongues, Proust-like, to return to a childhood home most of them will never see again. Behind hands and inside mouths and beyond bodies, there flourishes a cosmic piñata of stories, like mine, of escaping the native land, of alighting elsewhere, of crossing frontiers legally or surreptitiously, of border guards and guardian angels, of fighting to keep in touch with the vast pueblo latinoamericano left behind, of memories of hunger and repression and also of solidaridad and vivid dreams. A woman from Honduras is piling onto her cart a ton of bananas that are the color of a red sunset and, though already well on their way to decomposing, will be perfect, she assures me, with tomatillos and pinto frijoles. A couple from Colombia (I detect the soft specificity of excellent Spanish from Bogotá) discuss whether to experiment and add to their ajiaco that night some Mexican Serrano Peppers (shining green as they curve under the neon light). The husband says that’s fine, as long as she doesn’t forget to mix in the guascas herb they have just bought and which he first relished when he was an infant. Inside each of them, as inside me and my Angélica, there is a tale of heart break and heart warmth, of hearths orphaned back home and hearths rekindled in our new dwellings.
Where else could these shoppers (and so many other unrecognized ambassadors from every country and ethnicity of the Americas) meet in such an ordinary way, chatting in every conceivable Spanish accent (and some murmur to each other in indigenous tongues I cannot identify) next to this Chilean-American born in Argentina as if nothing could be more natural?
As Hispanic Heritage Month draws to a close (a celebration that no Latin American nation, or Spain, for that matter, sees the need to institute), perhaps it makes sense for Durham to add a sign to the many greetings that welcome visitors when they enter the city limits from the highway or descend from a bus or a train. Next to the emblematic “Durham, City of Medicine”, or the town flaunted as the home to the Durham Bulls or Duke University’s Blue Devils, is one that ushers you (it’s on the website) into “Durham, where great things happen.” Great things do happen here.
So maybe it is finally time to write another greeting, in glorious Spanish, for all the world to see, including inhabitants of the twenty-one republics to our South, maybe it is time to welcome our visitors this way:
Bienvenidos a Durham, dónde América Latina se vuelve a encontrar.
Where Latin America meets again.
* Ariel Dorfman is the author of Death and the Maiden. His latest book is Feeding on Dreams: Confessions of an Unrepentant Exile.