by Mariela Ferretti

As a child, I was a picky eater—so much so that my mother swears my eyes are large because instead of swallowing food, I used to collect it in my mouth until I could hold no more.  The effort made my eyes bigger with each mouthful.

“Swallow, Mariela!” the neighbors constantly heard my mother yell.  They joked about having my name changed.

I was not just a child but a refugee, struggling with the American palate in an elementary school cafeteria that did not yet have salad bars or fast food; but even those choices probably wouldnít have helped me. What this cubanita really needed was the simple, satisfying lunch staple of rice and fried eggs, arroz con huevos fritos, cooked to perfection by momís loving hands.

Along with the stresses of maneuvering in English, and of trying to befriend my fellow first-graders, came the daily assault on my nostrils by strange aromas in the lunchroom. Between sauerkraut and spinach, I would have been hard-pressed to name a winner in the “most offensive” category; and these were by no means the only culprits. I also had to contend with dried fish sticks and the incredible macaroni and cheese. A whiff and a glimpse at what waited behind the glass counter, and I was reduced to tears.  I received little sympathy from other kids, who were too busy digging into their own slices of Americana to notice.

After a while my teacher, Mrs. Allen, decided things werenít going so well and informed my mother of the daily drama. The kindly American lady proposed a sensible solution: pack a lunch for me at home.  Mom easily rose to the suggestion—for if thereís anything a Cuban mother understands, itís her childís need for sustenance. A bright red vinyl lunch box, decorated with blonde mini-skirted “go-go girls” in white boots, quickly appeared in our house.

My hopeful mother sent me off with the lunch box, while I had a new sense of well-being.  Here, at last, was predictability, comfort and joy.  With rice and fried eggs in my lunch box, the Sally, Jane and Dick characters in my reading primer suddenly looked so much nicer.

When the lunch bell rang, I went serenely into the cafeteria, already savoring the Cuban feast I was about to enjoy.  I defied the lingering odors in the air. Let them eat spinach, I thought. I have overcome.

Breathless with anticipation, I opened my shiny red lunch box and my eyes beheld an unexpected sight.  ¡Dios mio!  In the conversation between Mrs. Allen and my mother, something had been woefully lost in translation.  There in my lunch box lay a soggy, sticky peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

And again I was reduced to tears.

Mariela Ferretti has one of the most respected and committed voices in Cuban Miami—a city, she says, that contains “the best of both worlds.” Recently Mariela proposed that we begin publishing the remembrances of Cuban exiles who faced the task of adjusting to life in the United States. We embraced Mariela’s suggestion and are delighted to begin our series with her tale.

Born in Camagüey, Mariela came to the U.S. with her family in the refugee airlift program known as the Freedom Flights. She earned her BBA at Florida International University and has been active in many publishing and communications projects. Mariela is a contributor to the just-published volume Voces tras las rejas  or Voices From Behind Bars (Firmas Press), a collection of testimonies about Cuba’s present-day political prisons.

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