Las Piraguas de Don Jose (a trip to Puerto Rico) - My Family Travels

I was silent as we trudged up the cobblestone street. The houses we passed were white, pink and yellow, the walls bright against the dusk of late afternoon. From behind the screened windows I could hear the incessant Spanish banter, vibrant and warm in the fading day.


The wet breeze carried an alien smell of sofrito simmering, stray dogs and freshly washed laundry hanging out to dry. I didn’t care though. Two days on the Island and I was already half-eaten by mosquitoes.

The bugs obviously sniffed out foreigners. My cousin sprinted ahead of me, joining a group of children by a hackneyed, yellow cart. Their faces crinkled as they pointed excitedly at the words ‘Las Piraguas de Don Jose’ scrawled on its front.

Alba, she shouted, waving me over. Come try them. They’re piraguas, treats.

I nodded slightly, hurrying a little. I doubted she expected me to answer. I knew from the way my relatives looked at me that they couldn’t understand why I didn’t speak Spanish, why I couldn’t mold myself to their culture.

I understood their fast tongue, the jokes told during domino matches and dinners of rice and beans. But I wasn’t one of them. The same blood ran through my veins but I was no more Puerto Rican than the American tourists with their pocket dictionaries and ‘gringo’ accents.

Approaching the cart, I noticed the vender — ”a wiry, old man. He eyed me silently as I stepped closer to survey the canisters of syrup lining the counter. Piraguas were apparently Puerto Rican snow cones.

Everyone chattered around me, their lips stained dark red. I pointed towards orange, a staple flavor in my predominantly American kitchen. Orange, please.

As I watched him scrape a block of ice, the solitary flakes disappearing into the heat, I felt a pair of arms hugging me from behind. It was my cousin. Why are you getting orange? The red ones are the best. It’s frambuesa. My cousin’s lips were already red with the sticky sweetness. I shook my head. I hated raspberry almost as much as I hated mosquitoes. Just try it, Alba, her dark eyes pleaded. Of all my family members, she was closest to my age. We had the same taste in art, same passion for British humor. Despite language, we were the same.Realizing this, I reached over and gently tapped the cart. Frambuesa, por favor. The old man paused but then gave me a toothless grin. He handed me a new flavored ice.I could tell by my cousin’s slow smile that my lips were as red as hers. It has been a few years since I first tasted a piragua.

For my entire life, my family has spoken Spanish to me but I had never felt rooted to their culture. It was the way I spoke: the harsh accent, the reserved face. My cousins were vivacious, acrobats with their accents, tumblers with their cadence. I greeted people with handshakes and curt nods. On the Island, everyone was family. Everyone deserved a hug and kiss on the cheek. Surnames were worthless in comparison to memories of eating avocados at the kitchen table or snoring softly in a hammock while it rained. However, when I tried the piragua, I understood. We were family. Despite the four-hour plane ride that divided us, we were the same.

Language didn’t matter. Race didn’t matter. I could enjoy the same simple pleasures — ”like eating piraguas in the summer heat — ”that my family did. There was no more they or them. We were one.

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