by Ariel Dorfman *
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.