During this time of year, I am remiss if I do not stop for one moment to think back to my youth when I was growing up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn in the mid-80s (before the area was gentrified). My parents, younger sister, and I lived in a tiny two-bedroom apartment on the 20th floor of Building B, one of the two 25-story towers part of Roberto Clemente Plaza, an affordable and subsidized low-rent complex of apartments filled with Puerto Rican, African-American, and ultra-orthodox Hasidic Jewish families.
My maternal aunt, Titi Miriam, lived on the third floor of our building with her husband and children. Over in the adjacent tower, Building A, lived my paternal grandmother, Abuela Regina, with my grandfather on the seventh floor; my paternal aunt, Titi Maria, lived on the 24th floor with her three daughters; and, my mother’s aunt, Titi Catin (short for Catalina) lived on the 9th floor with her son and daughter. My godmother and paternal aunt, Madrina/Titi Gina (short for Regina for whom she was named), lived on the seventh floor of another building in the complex with her daughters and sons and my paternal uncle, Tio Sammy (short for Serafin) who is my father’s favorite brother, owned a two-family walk up right across the street from our projects. Without a doubt, la familia Flores had Roberto Clemente Plaza on lock down. It was our compound.
You can only imagine the energy inside my abuelita’s tiny two-bedroom apartment during this time of year, the beginning of Advent, when she received her offspring and their offspring and their offspring’s offspring. My family is huge and to give you an idea, my dad is number 17 of 19 children born to Felix and Regina Flores (en paz descanse) in rural Puerto Rico (Barrio Anon in Caguas, to be exact). Yes, you read that correctly. It is not a typo. I come from a large, loving family.
When you stepped off the elevator onto the seventh floor of Building A, all you had to do was follow your nose to her apartment. Turn left upon exiting the elevator and make another left and her apartment was the last one on the right side. As a child, I would race my primas-hermanas to her door, ring the bell incessantly, and wait to hear the quick shuffle of mi querida abuelita’s chancletas and her beloved voice ask: “¿Quién?” In unison, my primas-hermanas and I would yell our names in response: “Vanessa,” “Yesenia,” “Gina,” “Tanya,” and “Ariana.”
As soon as she would open the door, we’d enter the apartment in single file and bow our heads momentarily while pidiendo la bendición and receiving her response: “Dios te bendiga” with a kiss on each of our foreheads. During this time of year, especially during a weekend, it would be no surprise to enter a packed apartment filled with extended family – tios, titis, primos, primas, and also vecinos like my abuela’s BFFs Doña Monse and her husband. I have fond memories of my aunts guayando guineos (verde) and yautía at my grandmother’s table that was set up in assembly-line style for the purpose of making pasteles. At the same time, I can vividly picture my abuela at her regular post in front of the stove – tending to the pernil she was roasting in anticipation of stuffing pasteles and wrapping la masa in hojas de platano and white parchment paper to be secured by string. Since I was una muchacha buena, I had the distinct honor and privilege of lending my assistance and serving as an apprentice on the pasteles assembly line. I was allowed to take a spoonful of achiote and spread it on the white parchment paper before the masa was added by another member of the family working the assembly line. Priceless experience that would serve me well in my adulthood!
When the pasteles assembly effort was completed and the pasteles were either added to a stainless steel “soup pot” for cooking or stored away in the freezer to be cooked and consumed on a later date, we would move on to making coquito. Since my abuelita was a “rock star” in the kitchen and was a fabulous chef in her own right and learned how to cook con leña, ella guayaba coco, y también hervía clavos y canela to prepare her coquito. She did not take any shortcuts. While this activity was taking place, another member of the family would be rinsing empty, plastic gallons of milk so that the coquito would be poured into those containers. It was a very festive time llena de mucho amor y alegría in my upbringing. How I miss those days and yearn to replicate the tradition for my young daughters!
Yesenia Flores Díaz is a native Nuyorican who now lives in suburban Maryland, just outside of the nation’s capital. By day, she is a Public Health Advisor at a federal government agency. Outside of the steady 9-5, she is an aspiring writer who dreams of publishing a memoir and a loving mother to her greatest treasures. Mrs. Díaz has served actively on a number of non-profit boards and mentored teens. She is a member of Lambda Theta Alpha Latin Sorority, Inc., and has degrees from Lehman College (B.A., English) and the Johns Hopkins University (M.S., Organizational Counseling). Mrs. Díaz is a proud alumna of the National Hispana Leadership Institute’s Advancing Latina Leaders in Non-Profits Fellowship Program (2011-2012).