Friday, February 22, 2008

The Cuban Kitchen Dance



(This is a short story I wrote that was published last fall in the first ever "Chicken Soup for the Latino Soul'' book. Because a lot of people have asked to read it and because I've given away my own copies of the book, I thought it might be easier to post the story here for anyone who was interested. It's one of those feel-good stories about family. So enjoy!)

The unforgiving heat waves rolled off the stove as the aroma of creamy Cuban cafe perfumed the whole house, floating into the bedrooms and bathrooms and out the backyard into the Miami Beach air.

An earthy steam rose from a pot of potaje (stew) as it bubbled and hissed, while the Queen of Salsa, Celia Cruz, belted out her tunes from a little kitchen counter radio.

There was Mami, center stage, swirling and swaying rhythmically on the kitchen floor as if she were the star of her own Broadway show. Her wisps of auburn hair followed her every move. When she moved to the left, her hair whipped to the left, as if on command. When she moved to the right, it shifted in that direction with the same precision.

Mami always did this. It was her daily kitchen routine. She would break into dance while toasting bread, washing dishes or beating eggs to concoct some sweet Cuban flan. She would spend the day cooking or cleaning while my sister Cary and I were at school and my dad was exterminating bugs at local Miami Beach hotels.

That day was a typical lunch hour for my mom except that I happened to be home. It was Saturday. I was standing in the corner, a ten-year-old boy with coffee-hued curly hair, giggling at the sight of his wacky mother dancing with an invisible partner. And then it happened. The kitchen floor became the dance floor, and Mami suddenly pulled me on center stage, to, ugh, bailar.

Oh, my gosh, I thought to myself. Que pena! Why me? Why not Cary? Where's Papi? Can any of our American neighbors see us through the windows?

I didn't know how to dance, but that didn't stop Mami from forcing my two left feet to move. She whipped me around on the kitchen floor the way she whipped fluffy meringue. She twirled me like a strand of pasta!

I tried to escape, but to no avail. Her arms locked me in place. Celia Cruz did her thing on the radio, and Mami did hers in the kitchen, with me in tow.

The music played, and Mami began to strut her stuff.

"Ahora Yonito, a la izquierda, a la derecha, adelante y para atras,'' my mom announced, calling me by my family nickname, telling me to move to the left, then right, back and forth.

I tried to follow her lead, but I couldn't capture the beat. I wanted to breakdance or just break away, period.

"Mami, no quiero hacerlo,'' I complained. "My friends at school don't dance to this stuff.''

Her response? "Ahora Yonny, a la izquierda, a la derecha, adelante y para atras! Anda!"

She wasn't listening, maybe because la Celia was singing at the top of her lungs in the background, or maybe because Mami was gonna teach me how to dance no matter what.

I was frustrated. So was my mom. I kept stepping on her feet instead of the beige kitchen tile. Dancing felt awkward. My skinny legs couldn't keep up with her curvaceous flowing strides. My legs were like two sticks that wouldn't bend. I felt like a right-handed person suddenly forced to write with his left hand.

Seeing my frustration, my mom stopped and told me to listen to the beat pounding from the radio. She held my hands and said to clap whenever I heard the beat.

CLAP! CLAP! CLAP CLAP! CLAP! CLAP CLAP!

For a while, it sounded like a round of applause thundering in the kitchen. But then something happened. Mr. Two Left Feet began to catch on. After I clapped to the rapid gunfire of beats, my mom told me to move to them.

Swing back, CLAP!

Step forward, CLAP!

To the left, CLAP!

To the right, CLAP!

My hands were clapping and my feet were stomping, and I found myself swaying and swirling with Mami. The Cuban Kitchen Dance.

The spurts of Latin beats flowed from the radio into my heart, legs and arms. Some beats were rapido. Others were lento. Either way, I caught on to the burst of beats and to the rhythms crackling from the tiny kitchen counter radio. We danced on and on to Celia, then to other timeless Cuban favorites.

My mom lead the way that day, but, eventually, I began to lead her. I twirled her all over the kitchen, then the comedor, as beads of sweat lined our faces, and our hearts thudded to the beats. It was dance fever!

Memories of the Cuban kitchen dance were stirred recently when I bought my first home in Boston, Massachusetts, about 1,500 miles away from Mami's cocina/dance floor. And funny enough, my new kitchen resembles Mami's, with a bright beige tiled floor, wooden kitchen cabinet and a little kitchen radio that sits on my Formica counter.

On weekends, as I prepare my lunch, I catch myself dancing with an invisible partner to the sounds of Gloria Estefan or Shakira, moving to the left, shaking it to the right, adelante y para atras!

I close my eyes, listen to the beat and imagine that I am ten years old all over again, dancing with Mami in our Cuban kitchen.

May 26, 2006 in Cuban Being