How a White Boy From Wisconsin Helped Me Reclaim My Puerto Rican Heritage

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A few evenings ago, my partner cooked heaping bowls of red beans and rice for our two sons, 3 and 8, and me.

In the early days of our relationship, such a task would have caused him to perspire with anxiety. Forever a perfectionist, he would stare at every line of every recipe with anguished intent, hellbent on presenting me with the perfect plate of food.

Now, it's muscle memory for him — as if he was an abuelita cooking frijoles rojos con arroz for the millionth time — and it brings me so much joy.

As I shoveled spoonful after spoonful down my gullet and my sons delighted in another home-cooked Puerto Rican meal, I reflected on just how much it means to see my partner cook the foods of my childhood with such passion and reverence.

My partner snacking on a homemade empanada. (Courtesy Danielle Campoamor)
My partner snacking on a homemade empanada. (Courtesy Danielle Campoamor)

I do feel the need to make it known upfront that I fully realize that cisgender heterosexual men — dads in particular — are thrown proverbial parades for doing something as simple and necessary as changing a diaper or deigning to babywear or (gasp!) cooking a meal.

This is not an ode to the man "brave" enough to make his family dinner on a semiregular basis. No. Absolutely not.

This is a very public acknowledgment of the man who has made a concerted, self-imposed effort to better learn and enjoy my culture in order to make sure the most delicious parts of it are not only the foundation of my present, but a cornerstone of our sons' futures.

Because after nearly 10 years and countless dog-eared recipes later, I figure: There's no time like the present.

When arroz con pollo is more than rice and chicken

My father was born in Viejo San Juan, Puerto Rico, and lived there until his teens. After moving to the continental United States with his parents and four brothers, he eventually met a blond-haired, blue-eyed young Norwegian woman from South Dakota — my mother.

Our family, posing in front of the restaurant where my partner and I had our first date. (Courtesy Danielle Campoamor)
Our family, posing in front of the restaurant where my partner and I had our first date. (Courtesy Danielle Campoamor)

As a child, I grew up listening to stories of my father's island upbringing. Often, he'd peruse the meat aisle at the local supermarket and curse the cost of pigs' feet or cows' tongue. What were once throwaway scraps for poor Puerto Ricans now costs upwards of $20 or $30 a pound — the price of delicacies that not too long ago disgusted the affluent white people who now buy them.

I spoke fluent Spanish with my dad as if it was our own secret language, especially in front of my friends who could only stand in awkward, amazed silence. I came home from school to the aroma of arroz con pollo, langua, bacalaítos fritos, pernil asado and asopao.

But shortly after I graduated college — for reasons I won’t go into here — I became estranged from the only person who made me feel connected to my Puerto Rican heritage.

I was adrift and detached from a part of me that felt so innate yet was often questioned by people who were quick to let me know that I "didn't look Puerto Rican" or I was "too white to be Latina." As my ability to speak fluent Spanish faded with every passing day I no longer spoke to my father, so too did my standing as a “real Puerto Rican.”

A plate of red beans and rice and fried cod. (Courtesy Danielle Campoamor)
A plate of red beans and rice and fried cod. (Courtesy Danielle Campoamor)

A bowl of arroz con pollo became so much more than just a bowl of rice and chicken: It was a desperate lifeline to a part of me that felt distant — sometimes even "bad" — and increasingly foreign.

Finding myself with the help of a cheesehead

My father was the gatekeeper of my Puertoriqueña identity — and he knew it. I was not allowed in the kitchen when he cooked pollo en fricasé or habichuelas guisadas. To learn a recipe was a privilege to be earned, not a birthright.

So with him gone from my life, many of my favorite childhood recipes were gone, too. I purchased Puerto Rican cookbook after cookbook and scoured the internet for recipes I could envision my father carrying out via memory, trying and failing to replicate his masterful meals before eventually capitulating altogether.

When every feeble attempt felt like a loss of self, damning myself to a lifetime of packaged ramen and boxed macaroni and cheese felt like an act of mercy.

Another family favorite: red beans and rice with tostones.  (Courtesy Danielle Campoamor)
Another family favorite: red beans and rice with tostones. (Courtesy Danielle Campoamor)

Then I met him: the 6-foot-4-inch, brown-haired, brown-eyed, bearded Navy veteran from a small town in northern Wisconsin, who loved to hunt and fish and watch football and loudly debate anyone on anything for no reason other than to enjoy some friendly tension and the boisterous verve of his own voice.

I never wanted to get married. He did. I was not interested in having children. He wanted a whole brood. But we had one thing in common: estranged or nonexistent biological fathers and that sense of longing for a home we knew deep in the marrow of our bones but had never fully experienced.

He would cook for me, happily and often. He found recipes for rellenos de papa and tostones, empanadillas and painstaking pasteles.

When I moved into his apartment shortly after we started dating, he bought an overpriced, professional-grade pot for arroz con pollo, pollo en fricasé and — my favorite any time it's cold or rainy or I'm sick — asopao.

We never got married, but we did have children. When I found out I was pregnant with twins, he would make pollo en fricasé every single day to quell my insatiable craving, until that insatiable craving made me horribly sick. Then he put away the adobo and the sazón and the sofrito until I could once again stomach the smell.

I cried as he cooked me a bowl of his homemade asopao after we lost one of our twins at 19 weeks gestation. His orange fingers, stained by packets of sazón, wiped the steady stream of tears from my cheeks.

Our first Thanksgiving as a family of three, complete with a homemade pernil. (Courtesy Danielle Campoamor)
Our first Thanksgiving as a family of three, complete with a homemade pernil. (Courtesy Danielle Campoamor)

He made me bacalaítos fritos when I was in the throes of postpartum depression after the birth of our miraculously healthy surviving son.

As we grew as individuals, a couple and a family, so too did our collection of Boricua cookbooks and Puerto Rican recipes and handwritten family menus — traditional recipes made anew, at the hands of a white boy from Wisconsin.

Our sons' delicious future

The aromas of my childhood kitchen are now my sons' to own. It is not odd for them to eat a boiled cow's tongue or suck on the gelatinous bits of a cow's foot. With excitement in their eyes, they'll beg their father to let them watch the sofrito sizzle at the bottom of a pan or see the salt pork cook itself into the form of an unfurling sidewalk black snake firework.

Another baking session with Dad.  (Courtesy Danielle Campoamor)
Another baking session with Dad. (Courtesy Danielle Campoamor)

It's common for my partner to come home, annoyed and exhausted by the politics of his work, and lose himself in a new Puerto Rican recipe he's determined to master: sopa de pollo con fideos or queso relleno con arroz con pollo. I'll sit on the couch and peer into the kitchen as my sons fight over who gets to portion out the rice and who gets to stir in the tomato paste.

The nights when we sit around our dining room table and dig into a laboriously made pernil — the crunch of the perfectly roasted cuero threatening to derail any conversation — are etched into my mind. I hold onto them dearly, knowing one day I'll move them to the corners of my brain to make room for the moments when my sons call to ask their dad if that one recipe called for one cup of wine or two.

"How many pimientos, dad?" one will ask.

"At least two or three spoonfuls, but do what feels right," he'll respond.

"Hey Dad, how do you get the bacalaítos fritos so crispy?" another will inquire.

"Did I teach you nothing?" he'll joke.

My partner doing what he does best: making our boys laugh. (Courtesy Danielle Campoamor)
My partner doing what he does best: making our boys laugh. (Courtesy Danielle Campoamor)

I used to think the part of me that felt connected to my Puerto Rican heritage was forever lost. Now — as my partner prepares a marinade for a pork shoulder that will sit in our fridge for 24 hours, then fill our apartment with the smell of garlic and sazón, adobo and pepper, onions and bay leaves — I realize that that part of me was just waiting. It may have felt faded at one time, but it stained my insides like the sazón on my partner's fingertips the day he wiped away my tears and promised me everything would be OK.

That part of me was just waiting to be celebrated. Waiting to be understood. Waiting to live on in a curious, deliberately kind white guy from Wisconsin and the two beautiful sons we now share.

And like any delicious plate of food, it was worth the wait.

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