“El diablo no sabe por diablo pero por viejo.”
“The devil is not wise because he’s the devil, it’s because he’s old.”
She Left Something Behind
Vico who could not stand the heat has left me. She took her clothes, pens and pencils, her priceless books and moved to cooler lands which are too far from me. Vico left me nothing. When I was seven years old I would normally sit for hours on end in a small room playing with my lego sets which would be spread all across the floor, on shelves, and the sofa, they would be everywhere, they’d act like a minefield for anyone who dared to tread into my sanctuary. This room was my refuge, my hideout from all the evil things in this world, for I was king, ruling over the small plastic figures that lay cluttered over the floor. It was here where most of my childhood had been spent playing and where I went to calm down when I had a bad day, this was my territory. I would, however, play alone, no brothers or sisters, alone for hours on end as my father worked and my mother would have important housework to attend to, I would not dare bother her as she’d swiftly shoo me off. There was no one to keep me company day in and day out, abandoned. Nonetheless, my nana, Vico, as I have come to call her would always pop up and around the corner and help me set up my little plastic figures in intricate postures and patterns that I would have never thought of, she would do this silently, and we’d play war with the little toy figures as I would swoop down my old Tie fighter she would swiftly make her figures dash across the ground. Vico always seemed to know what to do, I always thought that I would learn valuable lessons when I was with her.
~ ~ ~ ~
The snow felt like a soft feather pillow which would cushion you as you fell onto it, had it snowed recently it would cast a soft film over the sidewalk that would cause every step to squeak as the rubber soles crunched the snow beneath, and the whole country would be covered in a thick layer of cool white powder like a hand knit cover, it draped over every home. I would hastily put on my winter jacket and a pair of too old boots that were too stiff from the cold and would rush outside at the first signs of snow, only to hear Vico yell from behind to wait up, and so I would, just for her, I never waited for anyone else. Vico, whenever we left the comfort of our home, wore her jet-black jacket which contrasted deeply with the glimmering white carpet formed by freshly fallen snow, but she never just wore black, it wasn’t her, an illustriously colored scarf hung about her neck which pronounced her slender features. Even as biting winds blew, Vico had about her a scent of cleanliness and coconut shampoo which was so pervasive that I was sure the whole country could smell it. Even though she was a woman of limited height and modest features, she strolled about the world with a sense of dignity and respect as she had been taught by the years and owned none an explanation, she truly held her head high. We would slowly tread two blocks of our small neighborhood to reach the base of a small hill that belongs to no one, but every child had a claim to it, myself included. We would drag our heavy winter boots up the frozen dirt leaving behind a trail of brown sludge which would stain your clothes and never go away. We had come to stop just in front of the steep hill, our destination, atop of the slope lay a flat stint of land covered by stretching pines which were coated in long needles which pierced any clothing however thick, and the snow had remained untouched for several days as it towered over me like a concrete wall. Further down grew the few resilient yellow flowers which protruded through the thick snow which was akin to a rough sweater that nanas nit for their grandkids, for the last hints of color in the world came from four lone flowers at the feet of a steep hill.
As we crested the hill, we would sit and puff out breaths of frozen air, an eight-year-old and 70-year old that would make this journey together every day while it snowed. We would sit, stare ahead into the empty woods that were just a kilometer away, ominous, but beautiful with their white hats.
“¿Listo? ” Vico would say as she laid on her stomach facing me, and I would swiftly respond,
“¡Listo! ” I replied with haste.
Even if she hadn’t asked I would still reply to the empty and still air which would carry the voice of a joyful child across the vast forest ahead. Any stranger looking on now would just see a crazed 70-year-old and her equally as wild eight-year-old nephew fly off the edge of the hill and roll down. I would draw my arms in and wait, wait just enough so I could throw my small body off the edge and plow through the frosted slope. The air chilling any exposed skin as I pushed off the ground and to become a victim to gravity, soaring through the air only to fall to the ground, fast. Thud, thud, thud, ¡ayyyyy! would be all that you would hear as we slid and tumbled through the soft white powder, and crash into each other halfway and keep sliding and slithering while laughing into each other’s arms. The crunching of snow, the mist sprayed into the air as our two bodies crashed and turned as I made we way downwards. These are the moments that remind me of a childhood that I did not spend alone but with my best friend day-in and day out.
Us two always lived together, since the very first day that I can remember, she was there, right beside me, teaching, scolding me at times, but guiding me through a treacherous world that I would soon have to come to know. A few days after we arrived in Panama she would teach me a valuable lesson that has stuck with me throughout the years.
My mother and I have just returned from a long day of looking for at potential new homes here in Panama only to realize we had not eaten lunch, so we decided to sit down at the hotel’s restaurant with Feliciano who had driven us all around town and would soon become a family friend. He would drive us from one corner of the town to the other without a single complaint, sigh, or any other form of discontent, he holds true to his name, Feliz. I ran to the elevator to go fetch Vico who consequently had just come down to grab something to drink from the vending machines on the lobby floor, we headed back to my mother and Feliciano. As Vico and I entered the restaurant through the opaque glass doors that sealed in all those within from the disturbances of the outside world, we were rather bluntly surprised by the jam-packed seating area which was full of the professionally dressed businessman and woman who had jobs far more complicated than I could understand; the waiters in their white shirts and black silk pants who would stroll across the crowded floor with two trays in hand as if it was no challenge at all. It was 12, exactly the midday rush hour, no one paid attention to the humbly dressed elderly woman and the insignificant child as everyone texted on their phone, or yelled to their co-workers from just across the table, everyone had a stern and rather cheerless facial expression, I guess that’s how adults are, but not Vico.We briskly walked over to the table where we spotted my mother, casually dressed in a t-shirt and a pair of sweats, and Feliciano who always wore neatly pressed dress shirts of diverse colors and a pair of stylish khakis, they contrasted deeply with his dark skin tone. Vico and I sat down and started talking about our day until the waiter brought us three menus. Vico, very nicely and in a soft voice looked at the waiter and asked,
“Disculpe señor, but you only brought us three menus, could you get us another one for the gentleman please?” The waiter who wore a stained white shirt and a pair of pants that didn’t fit right responded,
“Pa este, he doesn’t eat here, he can wait outside.” I had never seen vico this mad, she was glowing red, pena ajena, or pure rage I could not tell, my mother spoke out in a rather not so sweet voice,
“Quien se cree ust –” but she was cut short by Vico, who had already stood up and was facing the waiter with a level of self-control that I would come to learn later should not be tested, so she spoke.
“¡PERDON! You are no one to tell anyone to go and wait outside, were they destroying your restaurant than by all means, but this man has been quiet and not spoken a word, so tell me, why you think that you can tell him to leave?” The waiter carelessly responded in a tone which can only be described as nasty.
“Este negro, doesn’t eat here he can leave or I’ll make sure he doesn’t pick up anyone else from this hotel.” Vico’s self-control was lost here, my mother and I just stared in awe at the lack of tact and respect on the waiters’ behalf, but again her thoughts were cut off, but this time by a scream. We had barely arrived in Panama, but we already saw the stark contrast between Switzerland. We had met people from all walks of life, all races, and none judged or mistreated one another; however, here in Panama, segregation and hate ran rampant
“¡USTED! Listen to me you rude, disgusting, pathetic, swine! This gentleman is ten times the man you are, if you think that you have the right to treat anyone with such disdain and aversion because he’s black then my son you’re about to learn! No one, has the right to ridicule, antagonize, or discriminate anyone for who they are, be it for their gender, race, nationality or whatever other antiquated division you want to draw between people, now get me your manager so I can make sure that you get fired and this man is apologized to this very second!”
I had never seen Vico this furious, and I had never seen a room get so quiet so quickly before, about 30 pairs of eyes stared at Vico from across the room. The calm, collected, controlled nana had been filled with fury by the comments of a man who had overstepped a boundary which he had no idea existed, a boundary no one had the right to cross. The waiter had turned translucent the more Vico scolded him, the manager would handle him promptly and swiftly, from where he stood he was guided to the sidewalk where he was to remain, forever, as he was banned from ever returning through the tinted glass doors. The words Vico uttered that day have stuck with me, everyone is entitled to respect and dignity as oneself, she was a role model that I would follow for years to come.
My nana was the one who has taught me about the world I live in today, she was the one who brought me the zesty flavors of Mexican cuisine, chiles rellenos, tacos al pastor, cochinita pibil, all the foods that mothers would cook throughout an entire day to be savored for hours on end throughout dinner. She brought me the tangy taste of jamon serrano, the smooth texture of tortilla de patata, or the crusty croquetas, the flavors of my heritage. The one’s made at home, no one made them like nana. Be that as it may, it was the unknown plates of food she would cook every Friday, the purple tentacles brazed with orange powder and specs of salt which was slathered in olive oil, the cane shaped creatures which were cooked in freshly pressed garlic and drowned in boiling oil to scorch their outside with bright orange and white patterns. It was these unknown dishes that Vico cooked for the whole day that brought me closer to a heritage that I not come to know.
“A ver, try it, just a little bit.” Vico would say when ever she cooked the extravagant dishes which had spices who’s name I could not pronounce.
“No quiero, it looks weird, I don’t want it.” I would respond if whatever was being given to me look even slightly different.
I always believed that Vico was a wild spirit at heart, her willingness to experiment and to probe at new cultures and experiences, but I always kept these thoughts to myself not daring to disturb her cooking. Vico had systematically arranged her forks and knives, mixes of spices and herbs all varying shades of green, red and yellow kept in hand-sized bottles, and lastly the vividly colored platter upon which the final dish would be served.
“Mi niño, don’t you want to know what home tastes like, to feel the flavors dance and the aromas sting your sweet little nose?” Vico would sit patiently, she would not tell me why I should try these new delicacies, but she showed me that these magical flavors came from a home I had barely known. She taught me that we don’t need to be at home to be reminded of what makes it special, but we can taste it in the foods we cook as a family.
Vico stood up to tyrants, she’s the person who brought my home to me even if I was ten thousand kilometers away, she’s the one who taught me the true meaning of friendship. Vico who could not stand the heat left me. She took her clothes, pens and pencils, her priceless books and moved to cooler lands which are too far from me. Vico left me nothing, yet she left me everything, memories of the many lessons, morals, principles to live by. Vico might have left me nothing, but she will always remain with me even if she’s not beside me and so will our memories.