Our conversations about food and culture boil down to one central feeling: representation – or, unfortunately, more often the lack of it. We want our food and faces to be seen and heard outside the walls of our homes and communities. As the daughter of a Cuban mother and a Spanish father, I am used to the world celebrating my father’s culture while I understand my mother’s culture much less. Tas, sangria, strong Rioja wines, sliced jamon, bullfights; even fake representations of Spanish traditions are at least an acknowledgment of reality. I am fortunate to have grown up in Miami, a place as close to Cuba as I will worry. Even so, I never felt like I had much in the mainstream media as a reference for the feeling of being seen as a Cuban.
As an adult, I found solace in the wonderfully charming and smart remake of One day at a time – sharp with his portrayal of the heartbreaking and all too common Cuban exile history, the importance of Vicks VoRub to any Latin American household and an explanation of why Che Guevera, a man who served as Fidel Castro’s deputy, is not the face you want to wear on your t-shirt – because for some reason we have to keep explaining this to people.
The newest source of joy from familiarity was a scene in In the heights, the Jon Chu-directed film addition of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s 2008 Broadway musical about a Latinx community in Washington Heights, New York. The film has received mostly glowing reviews and has 96 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, though it would be remiss not to mention it the ongoing conversation about colorism and In the heightss lack of Afro-Latinx people (who make up a large percentage of Washington Heights’ population in real life). Not every Latinx person has seen themselves reflected in the story that celebrates the diversity of our community, so I acknowledge that there is an exclusivity that comes with being seen. But for me as someone who has rarely experienced the comforts of a Cuban-American household so lovingly, I would like to highlight the detailed, authentic Cuban dinner series prepared by Abuela Claudia (played by the Cuban-American actress Olga Merediz).
About an hour after the start of the film, we see a room that is mainly lit by candlelight. The main characters of the story are gathered in Claudias Artment to welcome Nina, a daughter of the ward who was in Stanford, with a feast. (Earlier in the movie, when two characters are talking about the upcoming dinner, they write down how much they will be eating.)
When the dinner scene begins, we are concentrated on an elaborate blue and pink plate with scattered Ritz crackers, which are topped with equal slices of Guayaba y Queso – the perfect combination (created by a Cuban baker from Miami) of guava paste with cream cheese, which fills many of the pastelitos in Cuban bakeries; It’s so good that it’s not uncommon to stack the two ingredients on top of each other for a single bite, on a spoon for a large bite, or, as here, on a cracker.
The meal expands to a bowl filled with a not yet thrown ensalada de pa, a baking sheet with Cuban tamales, a white casserole dish with a blue flower filled with arroz con pollo – the chicken is still very much on the bone; the most beautiful, deepest steamed ropa vieja I’ve ever seen, peppered with sliced olives; a glittering pernil resting on the stove; and perfectly round flan with a caramel sloping to the pale side. I gasped at the sight of all the food with as much delight as I did at the appearance of Marc Anthony five minutes ago, in awe to see near-exact replicas of the dishes that filled my family’s table – and still do.
This montage of Cuban food barely contains just 10 seconds of the film, but it was still one of my favorite moments in the film. I know that I am lucky to have a special feeling of being seen during the runtime of the film; there was really so much that touched me In the heights, from Abuela Claudia singing about her days in La Vibora, an area in Havana where my family spent time, to the immigrant parents who do everything in their power to make the children successful.
It gave me hope that the alienation of my culture and their food could subside, albeit in small steps. Maybe someone who watched this movie looked up what the hell was on those Ritz crackers and decided to try the guava and cheese combo for themselves; or they suddenly got cravings for flan and got one from the local Latin American bakery. Perhaps fewer and fewer people will tell me that Cuban food feels so “heavy” to them, a little too starchy, or that they lack salads. For me there is nothing like it and never before has it been so poignant.