Carolina Barraza Puerta


Carolina Barraza Puerta is a recent graduate from the University of Melbourne whose family comes from the Colombian Caribbean coast. It is this colourful region that has provided the inspiration for her writing. Having grown up hearing stories that seemed to have come straight out of a Gabriel García Márquez novel, she wants to share her family’s past with the world, much to her parents’ eternal amusement.

A Caribbean Three Course Meal



Coconut Lemonade



Fried Mojarra

Coconut Rice

Patacón Pisao






The following recipes, though intended for white beaches under warm Caribbean suns, are suitable for any luncheon party hosts who wish to make an impression on their guests. For ambiance, serve outside if summer, or if not, set the heater to maximum capacity and draw a bright sun on the wall. Palm trees optional.


Coconut Lemonade






Lime juice

Crushed ice


For any lunch, it is important to start with the juice. Something to cut through all the sweat. Candelaria liked coconut lemonade best. She loved climbing trees and cutting the fruit down herself. While she was up there, she would always cut down just enough for her lemonades, plus two green coconuts. One for her, one for the grandmother.

Coconut water is said to be the very best for all sorts of maladies. Candelaria liked to cut down the fruit before sunrise so she could leave it in an ice bucket until midday. Cool, the green coconut’s water becomes a viscously sweet delicacy.

Candelaria would think about it while she started the day’s lunch. Like the grandmother taught her, she always started with the juice.

There are no definite measurements for coconut lemonade. It depends on personal preference, availability, the position of the sun in the sky, the direction in which the wind is blowing and other factors that, due to time constraints, will not be mentioned.

Here is how Candelaria liked to make it:

Pick one coconut for every three servings. Grate coconut and mix with two cups of water in a large pot. Add one and a half tablespoon of sugar. Bring to boil.

The experimental cook out there will find that a lot can be done while waiting for the fruit to boil.

Candelaria herself had discovered this in early infancy. Her trick was to find a task that would take up the exact amount of time between the setting of the pot on the stove and the bubbles beginning to rise, but never overflowing the rim. Her grandmother taught her.

She knew that once a week she had the time to clean out the fridge. No matter what was in there, how suspicious or rotten it looked, Candelaria found that the cleaning always took the same amount of time: exactly thirteen minutes from the second she opened the refrigerator door to the minute she turned off the water tap after rinsing her hands. She didn’t have to try; like the great-grandmother before her, Candelaria had a way of being exact.

Such a blessed child, the grandmother would say. She believed exactitude was a gift from the Virgin Mary, and when Candelaria’s abilities first started manifesting, she even considered changing her name to something like Maria or Mariana. But at eight years old, Candelaria had a lot of trouble associating those names with herself, and the grandmother had to drop the matter entirely. Candelaria would have to do. 

It was around this time that the grandmother began timing and testing Candelaria’s movements. She kept a record of her findings in a little notebook on the highest shelf in the kitchen. How long did Candelaria take dicing the coconut. How long before the mix boiled. How many turns of Candelaria’s wrist did it take to grind the coconut into a paste.

Candelaria followed each and every step the grandmother recited, allowed herself to be timed and never asked why. There was something about the grandmother that did not allow for questions, even when she went blind and delirious. Especially when she went blind and delirious. As a child, Candelaria had no reason to question the grandmother. She was as unmovable and archaic as a rock. And the notebook itself never held any power over her. To Candelaria, it was the photo album they didn’t have. Not particularly interesting in itself, but the inanimate proof that she existed.

Even when Candelaria attained her full height, she still couldn’t reach the top shelf. The notebook remained there, gathering dust and spiderwebs until the kitchen had to be demolished under the pullulation of beach resorts of modern age. But Candelaria was long gone when that came about.

While she was still in her grandmother’s kitchen, Candelaria would take seven seconds out of her fridge-cleaning time to stare up at the top shelf. Eventually, she decided she would never reach for it.


Candelaria loved the smell of coconut after it boiled. It was something sweet that stuck in her nostrils while she let it sit. When she was a very small child, Candelaria picked up the habit of whistling to herself from the grandmother. The tune that rolled off the grandmother’s lips was like the slow rumble of the sea. After the grandmother died, Candelaria only heard the tune once more, on the day her exactitude failed. But for now, suffice it to say that Candelaria loved the smell of coconut while she whistled and waited.

It was very important, back then, to let the coconut sit for a while. Before food processors, the way to proceed was to put it in a mortar and grind until it became a uniform white paste, easily dissolved in water. After, the paste was returned to its original pot, stirred into the boiled water and, finally, the liquid had to go through a strainer, to get rid of all undesired solid remains. The yielded white liquid is what the experimental cook out there will know more commonly as coconut milk.

Candelaria was the first and last person to operate a blender in that kitchen. The day the first one arrived was one she would never forget. She was fourteen. The year before, the grandmother had lost her sight to some unnamed disease. It was now Candelaria’s task to make sure that every ingredient delivered to them matched the high quality standards of their family canteen. One day, their supplier mentioned he was selling blenders now. He described them as a sort of magical machinery that could speed up any process in the kitchen. Candelaria was mystified. For two months, one week and three days, Candelaria cut back on her sleeping time to revise her own records again and again.

Even before her blindness, the grandmother had stopped recording Candelaria’s timings. One day, she closed her notebook definitively, placed it where it had always belonged and never brought it out again.

Confused, Candelaria started keeping records of her own times. She figured the senile grandmother was too tired for the task and it was now up to her to keep track of herself. She couldn’t remember when the grandmother started doing this or why. The reason behind stopping was equally mysterious. She had never found much use for her own version of the kitchen notebook. Not until the idea of a blender cast a spell on her. 

Through careful mathematical calculations, Candelaria figured out a way of sparing fifteen minutes of her day to make an extra meal. The blender could be paid in lunches, Candelaria explained. If the grandmother agreed, Candelaria would make an extra meal for the next three years to pay it off. The grandmother frowned in Candelaria’s general direction. If the grandmother hadn’t been blind, Candelaria would have said she was staring straight into her soul. In the end, the grandmother agreed, which was all that mattered.

The day the blender arrived, Candelaria’s exactitude nearly failed. Her heart palpitated hard against her ribcage as she prepared her first extra lunch for the next three years. Her unsteady hands almost dropped the plate before it could reach its final destination. But Candelaria made it to the table, where the supplier waited with a box by his feet. The blender quickly became her favourite appliance in the entire kitchen, much to the grandmother’s eternal grief.

The problem wasn’t the grandmother herself. It was the grandmother’s biological clock. It had long ago adjusted itself to Candelaria’s movements, so that even when the grandmother went blind, she still knew when Candelaria should be doing this or that. If anything, her clock became sharper with the blindness. At some point, it got confused under Candelaria’s adjustments, and Candelaria worried for days whether she had permanently broken the clock. Eventually, the grandmother stopped asking questions. Though it had taken time, the clock had finally gotten used to the new routine.

Candelaria chastised herself for worrying over it. The clock was as decrepit as the grandmother, it was only logical they would both take their time adjusting.

The blender’s truculent noises still unsettled the grandmother weeks after it became a fixture in the kitchen. She got so nervous whenever Candelaria turned it on that she had to be guided back to her fixed seat in the kitchen before her confusion slipped into anything else. Whispering soothing words to the grandmother became part of Candelaria’s routine. She would settle the grandmother back in her seat, take a cool green coconut, chop the top off and drop a straw in it.

The grandmother’s first sip was always tentative. But as soon as the sweetness got on her tongue, she would settle in her seat, ready to enjoy herself. After she lost the vast majority of her teeth to old age, coconut water was one of the few pleasures that remained to her. She would smile around her straw, alternating between sipping and whistling. That good old tune like the rumble of the sea.



After the coconut milk cools down, lime juice is added in equal parts. The mix is then stirred until it reaches a perfect point of homogeneity.

Candelaria spent a fair amount of her mornings squeezing limes. The grandmother, and years of experience, had taught her the smallest limes always yielded the sweetest and highest amounts of juice. The difficulty came when trying to keep them from rolling away in fear from the kitchen knives. But once Candelaria got them nice and settled, the small limes became pliant under her palms and their sour taste was just sweet enough.

Up until a few weeks ago, the grandmother had assisted Candelaria in the process. But lately, senility had gotten the best of her. She was getting vertiginously lost in her own delusions.

Candelaria was squeezing her thirtieth lime of the day when the grandmother told her to follow it. Her face looked strangely focused as the words left her mouth. She appeared almost lucid as she pointed an accurate finger in Candelaria’s face. “Síguela y no mires nunca para atrás,” she said.

Or at least, that was what Candelaria thought she heard her say. The grandmother’s lips were pulled so far in against her toothless gums that it was hard to decipher her delirious words.


The grandmother predicted her own death two days before it happened. One morning she came to Candelaria and, with unperturbed grace, started reciting the instructions for her own burial. The grandmother was nothing if not practical, and so she had precious few last demands: a priest was to come give her the last rites; the mourning period was to be nine and half days; her coffin was to be surrounded by purple alstroemerias, and she was to be buried in the sand, under an unmarked grave.

The morning of the nefarious event, Candelaria sat the grandmother in front of a mirror to spruce her. It was then that Candelaria noticed that the grandmother’s body had started the fetid process of decay while she was still alive. Barely more than skin and bones at that point, she was savagely sprayed with perfume until her living corpse smelled of roses with a pinch of rancidness. Satisfied, Candelaria settled her back against the pillows. Together, they sat to wait for death.

She died in the early afternoon, when the sun was still a perfect circumference high in the sky.


Months after the grandmother’s death, Candelaria woke with a start. From her window, Candelaria was able to see the peculiar night. There was a gale blowing backwards, pushing sand back into the sea. It rattled, yet there was a small undercurrent to it: a whispered whistle of a slow rumble she had not heard in a very long time. The wind was already unearthing the corpses of giant shells in the sand when Candelaria stepped outside. Carried by roar of the storm, Candelaria let herself be dragged along the beach.

She tried to count her steps carefully to the grandmother’s grave. The grandmother had taught her to never disturb the dead. The storm unearthing her grave was unthinkable. Candelaria saw wood in the sand and rushed to it despite the wind. But it wasn’t a coffin what she found. Much to her surprise, what was hiding in the sand was the deformed echo of an ancient raft.

Fossilised, the raft was but a memory of what it had been once. And in the middle of the atrocious storm, Candelaria ran through her mind the careful calculations that would allow her to unearth the raft, carry it back with her. Perhaps it was the wind whispering in her ear, or the sand getting under her everything that disrupted her. Later, she would not be able to tell what it was that made her exactitude fail. In fact, whenever she would try to recall the events of that night and day, she would hesitate, doubting the veracity of her own memories.

Of that night and day, only one thing remained certain: Candelaria’s exactitude failed.

Of course, digging her hands in the sand to reach for that antediluvian raft, Candelaria knew nothing of this. She exhumed the raft in its entirety and carried it back with her despite the wind and the sand in her face.

That night, she could not find sleep. She tossed around in bed, having visions of the raft in the sea. Despite having changed clothes, her body kept shedding sand wherever she went. And through it all, the incessant wind never stopped its soft whisper in Candelaria’s ears. She stayed up all night and saw the wrong side of the sun for the very first time.

That day, Candelaria found herself closing her eyes involuntarily as she moved around the kitchen. She barely cooked her dishes, barely served her customers. She walked like she would collapse at any given moment. But she always picked herself back up, stretched her arms and continued. She continued until the very last human left her alone.

Exhausted, she glanced at the raft and wondered. She wondered if it was a curse or a calling. Wondered what it meant. The grandmother had always taught her to leave things where they belonged, to only take what she needed and give back whenever she could.

Candelaria stared at the raft for one long moment before she decided the thing had probably wanted to be found. Just so it could be returned. She had taken it without asking, had not given anything back. Sleep would be returned to her once she returned what was not hers.

In the rush that only comes with acute clarity, she dragged the raft out to the beach. The whispers of the wind got louder and louder as she dragged her feet across the sand. When she reached the water, the waves kept pushing the raft back onto the shore. Candelaria had to get in, all the way to her navel before the raft took back its own life and began swimming, away, away from her.

She stared after it until it disappeared definitively into the horizon. Then, she stayed in the sea, staring at it because she had never seen it before. Always busy with the kitchen and the cooking and the grandmother and the time, always the time and the exactitude. But now she had nothing to do, no cooking to get back to, no sleep or planning, nothing. She had exceeded her own expectations, had miscalculated since the very beginning, and now there she was, with all this free time in her hands.

The wind chanted in her ears, that tune only the grandmother had known. Candelaria remembered her, sitting, blind and whistling.

It was then that Candelaria remembered the grandmother’s words. Síguela y no mires nunca para atrás. She stared at the sea once more before turning back to where the wind was blowing.

Candelaria walked and walked, leaving behind everything and nothing at the same time. She never once looked back.


This will be the last piece of advice for the experimental cook: coconut lemonade is best when chilled. It is recommended to add crushed ice in each glass and serve immediately.

Fried Mojarra with Coconut Rice and Patacón Pisao










Vegetable oil



In Fidelina’s house, fried mojarra always meant a feast. This had nothing to do with the quality of the fish, which even back then was abundant and commonplace. Truth be told, Fidelina never cared much for it. The fish bones were something straight out of a nightmare and its funny smell always found a way of getting carried from the kitchen, out into the patio, and straight through to the rooms. Fidelina was sure the smell did it just to spite her. 

The day that marked the ninth month of her pregnancy, Fidelina woke up before the sun. She took a deep breath of clean air, allowing herself to enjoy it before the smell of mojarra took over the entire house. That day, their family canteen would be closed for the feast. Fidelina loathed these things. Never before had she wished so desperately to be an outsider. She wished she wouldn’t know what went on behind the beaded curtain that separated Grandmama’s kitchen from the canteen and the outside world. She wished she could sit mindlessly at the tables on the edge of the concrete slab, where the breeze from the sea could reach her face and mess with her hair.

Fidelina wobbled to the patio where she found her mother’s basket and sat down with it to grate the coconuts. Grandmama would be pleased with her early start and it was crucial Fidelina got in her good graces that day.

Fidelina quite liked the silence of the early hours. Soon, the roosters would wake up and everyone else with them. She smiled to herself as she grated the third and last coconut. Grandmama taught her that, for occasions such as this one, it had to be three. Not four, or two, but always three. When she’d been younger, Fidelina had played around with the number, pushing and pushing against the limits of Grandmama’s patience. She wouldn’t do that today. Grandmama was already on edge.

Grandmama was never questioned. Not by her late husband, and certainly not by her children or grandchildren. Not even strangers dared contradict Grandmama, because Grandmama knew things. Eight years ago, she had known there would be a long drought so she had everyone in the house running around, filling with water everything that could be filled. Grandmama had also known Fidelina’s uncle would run away at sixteen and that his father would die waiting for him to come back home.

Grandmama knew things, but she never told anyone how or why she knew them. It was impossible to tell which things she knew, which ones she guessed and which ones she had willed into existence just by announcing them. Everyone knew Grandmama knew things.

Fidelina knew Grandmama knew something about her first child. She knew because she had observed Grandmama, and she did not like what she saw. Grandmama had grown terribly silent as of late. She followed Fidelina with wary eyes. She frowned whenever Fidelina spent longer than necessary staring out the empty window frames in the canteen. She dragged her back inside if Fidelina left the canteen to wriggle her toes in the sand. She was also collecting an inordinate amount of pineapples. Grandmama knew something, and whatever it was, it was making Fidelina hesitate.


Like every other day in her life, Grandmama woke up with the calls of her roosters, five minutes after first light. Like Fidelina predicted, Grandmama was pleased to find her getting a head start on the coconut. She didn’t have to smile or say anything. She simply acknowledged Fidelina’s existence with a nod. They had a very long day ahead of them, Fidelina thought as she picked up her grated coconuts to follow Grandmama into the kitchen.

Coconut rice always took the longest, so it had to be started first. To begin with, the grated coconut must be mixed with water and sugar in a large pot over medium fire. The product was a murky white liquid otherwise known as the titoté. This task required constant stirring so the coconut and sugar wouldn’t burn or evaporate into nothingness. Making the titoté was extremely important, as coconut rice should only be cooked in this special coconut water. Of course, simpler and resolutely fraudulent versions of coconut rice existed, even back then. But Fidelina’s family had always been proud of making the most authentic traditional cuisine. The coconut rice had to be made right. 


After breakfast, Fidelina helped her mother dice all the plantains in the house. In silence, they sliced each plantain in five. They did not coordinate their efforts but years under Grandmama’s influence had conditioned them so their pieces had the exact same shape and size. Even the occasional deformed fruit obediently morphed its shape so that all its parts would be equal to all the parts of all the other perfectly cultivated and uniform fruits. Grandmama valued exactitude and obedience above all. Though none of her offspring had been blessed with the natural gift, she had trained everything around her to be precise.

At the exact moment when the sun reached its highest point in the sky, everything was ready for the frying. The frying, which was always left for last, was Fidelina’s sole pleasure in the process. She enjoyed it more than eating itself. There was something about the sound of raw food being cooked to a crisp that made the hairs on her arms stand up. That day, one hundred pots full with frying oil were fired at once. The sound of bubbling oil was almost deafening. It only got louder as they added in their food.

The plantain was first, as it had to be fried twice. In the first round, the diced fruit went in the pots until it was cooked. Before round two, the now softened plantain was sprinkled with salt and spread over the counter so it could be pressed into its desired circular shape with a pestle. Again, Fidelina and her mother worked with practised precision so that each circumference had the same dimensions as the next. Then, and only then, was it time for the second round, which yielded on that day one thousand traditional patacones pisaos.

Frying the mojarra was always left for last as the fish was at its best when served still sizzling.

Grandmama clapped when all the food was ready. It was her signal to bring the plates out, slice decorative limes for the fish, pick raisins to top the rice and bring everything out to the canteen. There, the usually scattered tables had been rearranged so that there was now a single, interminable table cutting through the middle of the concrete slab.

Family members Fidelina had never heard of emerged at the edges of the canteen like lost souls. Starved, they each took a seat where they pleased. Everyone except for Grandmama, Fidelina and her mother. The three generations were to sit at the head of the table, presiding over the rest as was their destiny.

Then, when everyone was seated, Grandmama raised her glass and said the words that Fidelina was dreading to hear and that everyone else was eager to echo. Their voices bounced against each other, impossibly trapped in a room with empty window frames. Fidelina felt Grandmama’s presence binding them to the space, forcing Fidelina to hear them on repeat. “To Fidelina,” they toasted, pointing at their belly. “To this Fidelina and all others that may come after her.”

Her hands trembled under the chorus of ghosts when she picked her glass. But in the second it took her hand to follow her instructions, Fidelina heard her mother’s silence, cutting through the noise. She forced herself to raise her own glass, hold Grandmama’s gaze and drink. Grandmama smiled but she was not happy. She smiled the smile of sharks before the hunt.

It was the loudest feast anyone had ever heard.


The sun was starting to hide under the horizon when Fidelina stood up. She heard the sea whispering to her, a slow melody that called for her as she wordlessly stepped off the concrete slab and onto the sand. Wriggling her toes, she stared at the sky and waited for Grandmama to say something. She knew in her bones that Grandmama knew she was ready. That there was a boy waiting for her with a donkey and a beat carriage. That tonight, she was ready to never come back. She took a step back and turned to face her prison of reed and clay.

It was then that she felt a tremendous wetness running down her legs. She didn’t realise she was crying but she must have been because her mother appeared next to her in an instant. Against her will, she was guided back inside. Her feet felt heavy when they hit the warm concrete slab. She put her face in her mother’s shoulder, shaking her head hard. She thought of the bittersweet taste of pineapple in her drink. In her last moment of lucidity, she grabbed at her mother’s dress. “Don’t give her our name,” she begged.

This was Fidelina’s last solid memory. After being dragged inside, she was in and out of consciousness, slipping further and further with each push.

By miracle or design, she heard her daughter’s first cries. She also heard Grandmama saying her name. Their name.

But then she heard her mother’s voice, a thunder in the storm of cries.


She felt weightless when her soul detached itself from her body. As she elevated into nothingness, she stared down one last time and saw her mother shielding her baby girl. She felt the sea breeze in her face and let it carry her somewhere else. Anywhere else, she thought.








Costeño cheese


The first thing one must do to prepare a traditional casabito is peel the yucca. Fidelina became acutely aware of this the day she first heard La Piragua. It was four mornings before Lent and, like every other year, she was up before sunrise to help peel the yucca. Mama had been preparing casabitos all day and night for the past week in preparation for the crowd. And, like every other year, Fidelina sat on the patio, listening out for the first customers.

Her ears were so used to the mundane sound of fishing canoes being rowed back to shore that she knew the instant La Piragua touched the sand. There was something unusual about the way timber creaked against the water that morning. It wasn’t until she caught herself whistling an unfamiliar tune that she recognised what it was. It was the sound of the oars outside, ripping a drum of cumbia from the very ocean.

On that day, Mama’s tight kitchen was full with the sounds of deep-frying fish and the pungent smell of cooked sweat. Even their plants out on the patio were perspiring, drooping in the impossible heat. Something was happening beyond the mamoncillo tree that guarded Mama’s kitchen. At her young age, she had never been allowed past the mamoncillos. Her world started in the corners of her room, moved through the dark halls of their ancient house and into the patio, where it ended with the last leaf on that tree.

This was not the first time Fidelina craved the freshness of the outside. It was, however, her first time breaking Mama’s rules. She left her half-peeled yuccas on a table before gingerly walking to the mamoncillo tree. With the invisibility of someone determined to become immaterial and disappear, Fidelina slipped into Mama’s kitchen.

Through her nose and mouth and the pores in her skin, a rush of smells invaded her body the second she stepped in Mama’s kitchen. The invasion was so violent, her entire being shook with it. It was then that she saw them through the beaded curtain and the cooking fumes. Two bogas, father and son with skin the colour of mahoe, sitting at the furthest table, the one closest to the ocean. She knew it was them without asking. Knew these were the ones who could rip melody from the sea. She remembered it, the melody from the sea, and the violence in her bloodstream quieted down. Everything quieted down so she could hear the echoes of her memory.

That day, Fidelina accidentally left a single line of skin on a yucca. Not a very long line, perhaps it was the length of her index finger. Indeed, it was so short and thin she didn’t see the bit of skin later, when she grated the yucca. She didn’t see it as she put the grated mass through the mill or when she stuffed it in a fishnet. And she didn’t see it after, when she put in a pinch of salt.

As it was, Fidelina never saw the line of skin. But it was there in the bitter taste the tainted mass left on her tongue. Minuscule points of darkness that could not be picked apart from the immaculate flour. The whole batch had to be thrown out, and Fidelina had gone one day without food. It wasn’t punishment, Mama said. It was so that she would remember.

Fidelina made sure she examined her yuccas three and four times before she went on to grate them. This was the first thing she hated about Mama’s kitchen. Later, she would hate the smell of dead fish at noon, and later still, the sounds of people outside, masticating her hard work. In those years, she grew to hate many things, which she eventually reconciled with. Except for the last thing she ever truly hated, which was her name. That hatred, Fidelina took to the grave.

But back then, Fidelina was twelve, and the only thing she truly despised was making yucca flour. The grated yucca had to be put in a fishnet, drowned in water and finally elevated on tree branches so it could dry properly. To reach the branches, she had to balance herself on an old stool, raise the fishnet with all her strength, all while praying the Virgin wouldn’t let her collapse under its weight before she could hang it on the tree. After, she picked up a bowl and placed it right underneath the spot where the yucca water dripped.

It took so long, and she got so bored. But if Fidelina ever complained, Mama would  narrow her eyes, point her finger at her,  and say absolutely nothing while the ground quaked under Fidelina’s feet.

During the three long years it took to regain Mama’s trust, Fidelina got so used to her confinement to the patio that she almost believed the mamoncillo tree was the very edge of the world.  She would have believed it entirely if not for the four days and nights before Lent that La Piragua spent on their beach. Its melody carried all the way into the patio and gave Fidelina a strange feeling in the pit of her stomach. For four days and nights, her imagination would get lost in the drumming waves of La Piragua, rendering her quite useless until it left.

But this only happened once each year. The rest of her days, Fidelina spent exclusively with her yuccas. Their intimacy was so that she started developing an intricate relationship with them. Even their customers started noticing, refusing any casabito that didn’t have the mark of Fidelina’s hand. Everyone in town craved it. Some said it was the smell. Some said it was the taste. Rumours started flying around. Whispers of secret ingredients and pacts with the Devil eventually came to form the mystery of Fidelina’s flour.

They were all wrong.

Though there was certainly something peculiar about her flour, it was not a secret ingredient. The truth was, every time Fidelina would peel, grate, wet and dry her yuccas, she would do it while thinking and wishing for the same thing. She wanted more. And when one thinks and wishes for the same thing over and over, the thoughts and wishes seep through one’s own skin into whatever else one is doing. So when everyone in town ate Fidelina’s flour, they would eat her thoughts and wishes, too. They found they, too, wanted more. They also found themselves whistling a slow tune no one could remember ever hearing before.

Mama rarely exhibited pride in the deeds of others. She considered it silly to compliment people for doing the things they were supposed to do. It was natural that Fidelina was good at making yucca flour. Weaker children would have resented their mothers’ lack of praise. Weaker children didn’t have Mama for a mother.


The year Fidelina turned fifteen, Mama told her to bring her flour into the kitchen. The same rush she had felt years ago overcame her once more. With time, she would get so used to the many smells that they would be as much a part of her as the blood in her veins.

Now, however, she tiptoed around, following Mama’s footsteps. She copied Mama in everything she did during her first months in the kitchen, before she discovered her true talent. Mama had never been one for sweetness, but Fidelina was. She found this the day Mama allowed her to make dessert on her own.

Fidelina had learned from Mama how to spread her flour over hot stoves in perfect circumferences of exactly ten centimetres. The thin layers were then cooked for half an hour. In the mean time, the filling should be prepared. Mama had taught her to grate the cheese first, and then the panela. But on the day Fidelina was left alone with dessert, her yucca flour tensed on the stoves as soon as she picked up the cheese. It continued tensing, its delicate layer hardening into thick lines like the frowns on Mama’s face. It didn’t stop until Fidelina dropped the cheese and picked up the panela instead.

Once both ingredients were grated in the new order, Fidelina added a pinch of salt and stirred. She stirred exactly four times before grabbing a spoon for the filling. Carefully, she put a spoonful right at the centre of each layer and watched for the moment when the filling was close to melting. It was crucial the panela did not melt, for it was the small grains that made the sugar pop in the mouth. At this point, the layer of flour should be doubled over the filling and closed tightly around the edges. This required precision and constant vigilance. Fidelina never told Mama what she had done that day. But ever since then, she was permanently in charge of the casabitos.

She still learned every recipe Mama had by heart because she was destined to inherit the kitchen. As Mama’s firstborn daughter this was irrevocable. She learned everything Mama had to teach dutifully, did everything Mama wanted done without blinking. She even took it upon herself to write down each recipe for future generations because one never knows. Until that year, it had never occurred to her that she might not want her inheritance. Until that year, her destiny was the only thing Fidelina had known about life.


Soon after Mama let Fidelina in the kitchen, Fidelina was allowed to serve their customers. A strange breeze hit her in the face when she stepped out into the canteen. It tasted of salt and felt grainy on her tongue. It tasted the way mojarras looked when they were brought in still squealing because no one had bothered to put them out of their misery. In her confusion, she tripped over thin air and smashed two plates on her first try. But she stood back up, smoothed her aprons and ignored the way her cheeks burned. It was the first and only time this happened. Fidelina grew so fond of the canteen, she never dropped another plate or gave Mama any other reason to remove her.

The sea breeze never felt as strong and as it did in the canteen. Often, Fidelina would find any number of excuses to get herself amongst the tables. She managed to convince Mama her eagerness had nothing to do with the outside and everything with the need to please. She taught herself not to walk too close to the edge of the canteen and to never sigh where Mama could hear her to stave off any suspicions. She was so absorbed by her new routine outside the patio that she quite forgot all about Lent until it sat at one of her tables and ordered.

Fidelina hadn’t seen the father or the son since that first time but the murmured song that followed them was unmistakable. She heard it stepping into the canteen and, forgetting all about Mama, she rushed out from the kitchen to meet it. She stood in front of them for the first time on a slow afternoon. They had smooth skin and calloused hands. They had perfect white teeth and feet covered in sand. The father ordered in a soft voice while the son smiled.

Something in the breeze shifted as she walked back in the kitchen. It whispered words to her. It said “sígueme,” and that night, she did.


It was quiet when Fidelina sneaked out. She had barely touched the edges of the canteen before and now she was about to step onto the sand, onto the real outside. She would have stayed until dawn with her naked toes curled around the edge of the concrete slab if not for the breeze that pushed her over. She stumbled on the sand, heart palpitating. She found nothing when her hand reached out to steady herself.

It was then that she realized the immensity that surrounded her. She had never been this close to the sea, had never seen the waves curling before they broke upon the sand or the moon that quivered in the water. For a moment, she forgot all about the whispers and saw nothing but the sea that extended further than she could see. But the breeze called to her. She felt its voice on her skin, beckoning her to follow. And she did.

She followed the whispers of the breeze until she found the father and the son in middle of the beach, drumming and dancing to the melodies of the sea. Their dark skins shone around their immense fire in the sand. They smiled at her serenely as she approached. She had the distinct impression that it was with this same serenity that they executed every act of their existence. Then the son took her hand and dragged her body to his. He placed two hands on her hips and started to dance.

She escaped Mama’s house the following night and the one after that. On the second night, the father taught her how to dance to his drums. On the third night, she sang. Her voice escaped her mouth without warning, vibrating out of her throat like it was fighting against her bones to escape.

She did not notice the men and women emerging from nowhere to join them. She had her eyes fixed on the stars, voice projecting high like she wanted to reach them. They were there when she looked around.

At first, they were shadows around her, ethereal and barely drawn on the landscape. But the more she danced and the louder she sang, the firmer the shadows became. She sang and danced until their fire was the only light that flickered in the dark.

Then the father raised his glass to say the only words that were not sung in the entire night. With his eyes on the sea, he toasted to Mamá Cumbé.

For the years that followed, she only existed for the four days and nights when father and son landed on her shore to sing and dance to Mamá Cumbé. Mama mistook her liveliness for devotion to the kitchen in its busiest time. And every other day, her death was taken for composure.

Once, the father told her they danced and sang to find Mamá Cumbé. Just before Lent brought the death of pleasure, the children of Mamá Cumbé came to her shore to dance and sing. She wondered what Mamá Cumbé looked like, if they would ever find her. She never found out if they found her but she did. She found her the year she turned eighteen.

It was the hottest year anyone could remember. The weather stuck to the skin like a dampened cloth, and ice was a luxury Mama refused to indulge in. Four days before Lent found her fanning herself in the patio, gasping for air. She was so concentrated on the task of barely staying alive in the impossible heat that she missed the first calls of the sea.

That night, she found Mamá Cumbé. She found her while she was singing and dancing. She found her swirling through her veins. She felt a drumming emerging from her navel, invading and possessing her. It dragged her feet to the sea, deep in the water. It made her fearless in her song and dance. She took off her dress first, then the ribbon that tied her hair. She took off her pride next, then her shame. Her name, she had already forgotten.

And then, when she was truly dispossessed, she found her. She found her in herself, dancing within her, singing for her.

She emerged from wave covered in sea foam and sand. She saw the son. This was the first of the last two times she would ever see him again.


The last time Fidelina saw the son she had a baby girl in her arms. She had snuck out of Mama’s house just before first light, pressing her child close to her breast. On the beach, she had sat and waited for the sounds of timber creaking in the sea. When she heard the breeze carrying La Piragua, she had stood up.

Fidelina and her daughter froze in the sand when they saw the father and son. They stood tall on their raft. It was then that Fidelina understood that the men meant to take them away. She tried to move but found that her feet were rooted to this land. She felt salted water on her cheeks that did not come from the sea, took a deep breath and tried to offer the child in her arms. But her arms would not move. She tried calling to the men but the wind suddenly howled in her face. Defeated, she collapsed on the sand.

Fidelina and her child were not destined for freedom. They were rooted to this beach, to Mama’s kitchen. She and her small daughter in her arms were condemned to this place. She stretched out her hand into the empty air before her, trying to grab something that had never been hers.

She heard the slow rumble of the timber swimming further into the sea and tried to turn the sound into a whistle with her lips. Something to remember Mamá Cumbé even when she herself forgot. And as she stared at the infinity of the ocean spreading out before her, she comprehended the name Mama had given her and her child. Then, she understood the name was the only thing she would ever truly hate.

On that beach, she understood that you could put all her hatreds in a big pot, boil them in water until they all disappeared. And what would be left in the pot, that which stuck to the edges and refused to be destroyed, would be the name. It had taken her too long to reach this understanding. She had allowed her daughter to be condemned to the same fate that came with the oppressive inheritance of the name. She blamed herself, though she shouldn’t have. After all, one rarely notices what hangs above one’s head. And that which hung over her head, the self-fulfilling prophecy of herself and every other Fidelina who came before and after her, was the archaic little sign that said:

Fidelina’s Family Canteen

© The Acentos Review 2015