I used to live in a building that belonged to a Pakistani family.
“Welcome,” I was greeted once, after class, by one of the owners. “What’s your name?”
“José, from Guatemala,” I said. Before coming to NY I had spent a week in Miami with other international students so I picked up the habit of adding my nationality whenever I introduced myself.
“Hussein?” she asked, she looked baffled, surprised, almost in shock. “Are there a lot of Husseins in Guatemala?”
I get this pretty often. Apparently there’s a phonetic likeness between the American Jo-sé, or Jou-seh, and Hussein.
The building was in the middle of a deep renovation, so a lot people –mostly Hispanic– came and went. Every once in a while, out in the hallways, there were heavy sacks of concrete or sand, or the pieces of a new armoire.
Aside from the construction workers, cleaning ladies engorged the Latino population of the building. Often I found them laughing hysterically. They all had that unique Latin carcajada: loud, huge, and grandiloquent. “Gud mornin,” they’d say, or “jelou,” or “buenos días,” they’d say even to the English-speakers.
It was with Valeria, from Puerto Rico, whom I talked the most. Valeria, or Vale, was from San Juan and lived in the Bronx with her two daughters. She was 47 and had come to the US in the mid-nineties with her husband, “un desgraciado” she said.
Often I found Valeria munching on some peanuts, crackers or raisins. She always kept a bag of chips in her cart.
“You like to cook a lot, right? I see you a lot out here?” she said to me one day. I shared the kitchen with four other tenants.
“Not really,” I said while I organizing my collection of dishes and frying pans. “But I don’t like to store things in the fridge.”
“I see. Are you going to finish soon? I have to clean.”
Another time she asked me when had I come to New York, if I liked New York so far and I told her I did. “And what do you like about Nueva Yol’?” she said, with an L at the end of York. Boricuas often replace the R for an L.
“Well, the rhythm of the city. The art, museums, parks.”
“It’s your first time here?” I told her it was. “Right. And have you gone to Puelto Lico?”
“You should. You’re from Nicaragua, right?”
“Right, right. Well be careful here, acabo de mopear,” she said, like that, ‘mopear’, conjugating mop as if it were a Spanish word. Mopping or trapear in Spanish became one tropical, heavily seasoned word. Mopping became mopear.
All my meetings with Valeria were like that, brief, incidental and, somehow, always memorable. Sometimes she’d say hi over the loud tronazón of her cellphone, sometimes she’d have Shakira on, sometimes Diego Torres. We never had an actual meaningful chat, but it was nice to speak Spanish from time to time.
One day, while I was reading at the basement, Valeria walked passed by with a heavy basket filled with fruits, vegetables and canned food. She said hi first.
“¿Te gusta la pinabora?” she said. “Do you like pinabora?”
“No,” I said, although I didn’t know what it was.
Pinabora, I said to myself, I had never heard such word. I repeated the syllables in my head, pi-na-bo-ra. That word seemed so distant and foreign, but at the same time it didn’t. What could it be?
I thought Valeria must’ve been talking about a fruit. In Spanish fruits have colorful names such as carambola, rambután, pitaya and guama. I imagined that pinabora was a mix between piña and caimito, maybe. Perhaps it was a traditional Puerto Rican treat, a San Juan delight, a dessert that Valeria might have had as child. I thought about my grandmother, and how she’d often buy me figs at the local mercado.
“No,” I said to Valeria. “Well, I don’t know what it is,” I added.
“You don’t know what pinabora is?” she said.
It has to be a fruit, I thought. Valeria had the same fanatic indignation my friends show whenever I tell them I don’t drink coffee, that I don’t like coffee.
“No,” I smiled.
Among the variety of products Valeria had in her basket, she took out a plastic bottle and handed it to me. “Try it,” she said. “You’re going to like it.”
It was a bottle of peanut butter. I was still confused so I said “pinabora” out loud, or rather, I asked.
“Sí,” Valeria said as she walked away.
I flipped the bottle and read some of the ingredients until I understood and smiled by the amazing flexibility of Spanish, by Valeria’s rhythmic Spanglish.
It was a bottle of pea-nut bu-tter, or, written phonetically in Español, pinot boter, or, according to Valeria’s accent, to her Puerto Rican: pinabora.
“¿Te gustó la pinabora?” she said a few days later. “Did you liked the pinabora? I still can’t believe you hadn’t had it before.”
José García is a second-year Fiction student at the Creative Writing MFA program at The New School. Born and raised in Guatemala City, where he has worked as a cultural journalist for over eight years. He mostly writes about social issues, family, racism, and migration. He is currently working on a short-story collection that spans the last 70 years of Guatemala, alongside his family’s history.
featured image via Anna on Flickr.