How I bonded with my Abuela on Cafecito

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I don’t know what my then 60-year-old Puerto Rican grandmother was thinking, raising me, her already exuberant grandson, when she started regularly serving me coffee colao (or colado for the non- initiates) at the age of 4 years old child. She then laced the cafe colao with whole milk and a big scoop of white granulated sugar. My abuela, whom I called Mami, my only parent, my only caregiver and sometimes my barista, made the powerful concoction for me my entire childhood. At the time, his Bustelo thrilled me from my curly brown hair to my Flintstone toes. I liked it. She’d pack me full of sugar, caffeine, and carbs, and we’d swap stories like old war buddies.

For years, my mornings began with the sound of a coffee can lid opening and the aroma of finely ground espresso beans Mami used to fill the air. The smell wafted through our railroad-style two-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn, gently caressing my nostrils, lovingly waking me from a deep slumber. Dreams swirled in my mind of riding my bike through the bodega, riding Snuffleupagus down Sesame Street, or Walter Mercado emerging from the mist with a crystal ball. Yet even those fantasies were no match for what came from the real world: my abuela’s brew.

Although I’m really addicted to espresso here, it’s really my abuela that made me stronger.Courtesy of André Santiago

My abuela struggled her entire young life and fled to New York as soon as she could. I think this struggle is what led her to decide to raise me on her own when she was 56 and I was a helpless 3 month old. Without a father to speak of and with my mother in and out of the prison system, I’m sure my abuela saw herself as she stared at my helpless squishy baby body. She knew she couldn’t let the world do to me what it had done to her. As a tutor, she leaned on me with the same love and precision that I would later see her put into making her cafe con leche.

The stories of her struggles were hard to hear as she opened up to me those mornings at the table. She talked about those moments nonchalantly over the cubes of cheese she let melt and float aimlessly inside her. coffee as she stared into the distance, reliving it all. She would eventually come back to me from that distant place, smile and scoop out the cheese with a piece of bread. I never participated in the cheese float back then, but maybe I’m ready to float now.

Maybe it was because we were poor, or maybe it was because my grandmother was old school about her coffee, but we didn’t have one of those fancy coffee machines or even a cafeteria. , better known as a moka pot. No, no, dear reader, we had a colador, or as I called it, “The Sock.” A simple object. A sock-like off-white fabric filter held open by wire and a wooden handle. It’s more like the pouring method you see in high-end gentrifying cafes now, but back then the sock felt archaic, more coffee-like, intimate with the grounds.

To make coffee colao, some people pour water into the sock just like pouring it, but my grandmother used to boil water in a metal saucepan shaped like a milk frother pitcher above the cooker, with the sock placed inside and the coffee grounds inside of that. When the coffee was properly brewed (she always instinctively knew when it was), she lifted the sock by the handle, grabbed it with her bare hands, then squeezed the pouch firmly with her perfectly manicured arthritic fingers, unfazed by the searing heat. She warmed the milk separately in a small saucepan, carefully scooping out the burnt coagulated milk that formed at the top, which she called nata, with a spoon. She would then combine the steamed milk with the coffee, pouring the magic elixir into two tazas on saucers. Finally, she placed them where we always sat: her at the end of the table and me on her right.

The ever elusive laughter of my often stoic abuela.  I lived for that warm island laugh.
The ever elusive laughter of my often stoic abuela. I lived for that warm island laugh.Courtesy of André Santiago

Mornings were quiet back then. Everyone in my family was spending “Upstate” time – for the purpose of this sweet story – and for what seemed like a lifetime, it was just the two of us. How nice it was: no ringing phones, sending emails, notifications or reminders. Even the hum of computer fans and screaming modems wouldn’t enter our analog existence for years.

While at times we sat in silence (particularly when Mami was engrossed in the words of NYC AM radio personality and mystic Anita Cassandra as she recited the zodiac-specific lucky numbers), most of the time, we spoke in Spanish for hours. I would give anything to remember every conversation verbatim now. It’s not something you understand in the moment that will be important later. Time drives us all crazy, it seems.

Yet it was during those beautiful, long discussions full of laughter, over that hot café con leche, buttered pan sobao or Puerto Rican sorrulitos covered in cinnamon sugar (if I was lucky that day) , which I formed in my mind who my Abuela was. And what I learned is that it was forged by fire.

Although her times in Puerto Rico were tough, she waved that flag with pride.
Although her times in Puerto Rico were tough, she waved that flag with pride. Courtesy of André Santiago

My abuela was born in a small family. She had a brother whom she no longer remembered but to whom she longed deeply. A mother who died before she could memorize the smell of her hair. And a father who couldn’t stand raising my grandmother alone in Puerto Rico during the Great Depression.

For several years, my grandmother went from house to house – until she landed in the house of a farming couple, whom she called “mamá y papá” in the stories she told me. was telling. The farmers were tough on her. She was supposed to help. In truth, she has been ugly. She fed the cows and chickens and took care of the pigs and sheep. She cooked for the organic sons of the farmers, who reciprocated by bullying her. Her head was often shaved to prevent lice, and she was sent to school in tattered clothes. She constantly dreamed of running away and of a better life.

In our stolen cafecito moments together, we bonded. On our shared sorrows. About our loneliness. More caffeine. We grew up together, then broke up during my rebellious years, then got back together when I was in college.

Making my abuela proud is all I ever wanted.
Making my abuela proud is all I ever wanted.Courtesy of André Santiago

The phrase that many of us expect from our parents, but rarely receive, especially since the children of Latino parents who have never heard it themselves, is: “I’m proud of you” . Instead, we have to settle for other acts of love or care. And while she could never find those exact words, every time I came home from school when I was in Boston, I would wake up in my childhood bedroom and feel her pride. Because right next to me, gently placed with great care and love, would always be our greatest shared experience: a cup of homemade coffee.

It was all she could ever say and all I needed to hear in a steaming cup.

About Walter Bartholomew

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