Living La Vida Yerba Buena
I am a first generation American.
What does that mean to you?
If you are an American, you hear, “New to this country.” But, to the child of immigrant parents, you know what this statement truly means. It means you had a childhood full of what more traditional folk call “colorful stories.”
Oh, yes, I have notebooks full of colorful stories.
When you are a child of immigrant parents, you grow up in a home where one foot is in the new country, and the other foot is still living its life in the old country. My two brothers and three sisters didn’t really know how unusual and different life was from the one we knew at home. We thought everyone lived as we did.
My five siblings and I were very close, and did everything together and when we returned home from a day at school, with that first twist of the doorknob to re-enter our home, we would instantly be back in the old country. When that door closed behind us, the United States of America ceased to exist.
In my case, welcome to Colombia, baby!
Like most immigrant families, ours was an extended family under one roof. We lived with my non-English speaking Colombian grandmother. My grandmother never really understood that we were in a new country. She just came along for the plane ride, and kept her suitcase packed, for when her visit here was over.
Yerba Buena, the Good Weed
My grandmother came from a small village where she was one of the revered few who knew the ways of natural plant remedies. She was versed in all the plant remedies for all the plant types that Colombia is known for.
If we had an upset stomach, my grandmother would treat it with “Yerba Buena.” Literal translation: “good weed.” I’d go to school, with a thermos full of “mate,” or “good weed” drink. My schoolmates (I had no friends…Weird wasn’t cool in 1966.) would ask me what I was drinking. Knowing they did not know Spanish, I’d answer “good weed drink.” I can just imagine what my classmates ran home and told their parents about the Colombian children in their school who drank a “good weed” drink during lunch.
When my grandmother was living in Colombia, she was entrusted with preparing the town’s “chicha.” Chicha is a drink that is allowed to ferment for a lunar cycle (that’s what the recipe calls for) and includes cannabis or coca leaves. It is drunk in large quantities for celebrations, or in anticipation of a journey of two days or more across the mountains.
Preparing chicha is considered an art, and the person who makes the town’s chicha is respected. It is corked for 28 days and on the 29th day: Uncorked and Happy Days!
I tell you all this to explain the following glimpse of what my childhood days were like, a day in which my five siblings and I became the first known Latino gang in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in the year 1966:
Citrus Fruit and Headache Cures
We always had headaches as children (tension, anyone?) and my grandmother would remedy this in the following manner: she would take an orange, peel it, place the orange peelings inside one of her brightly colored Andean scarves, and then tie the blazing colored bandana around our heads, tightly, just barely above our eyelids. I still can feel the pull of the scarf across my forehead as she secured the knot in the front.
Something in the orange peels was supposed to act on the headache by shrinking the swollen blood vessels in our throbbing heads…but what really happened instead was that we would all go outside to play looking like little gang bangers.
Innocently, we would knock on neighbor’s doors, with our heads tilted up so that we could somehow manage to see something from out under our red and orange bandanas. We would stand on the neighbor’s front porches, orange peelings slipping down, the smell of citrus fruit attracting all the gnats and wasps around our heads, and eagerly ask if their children could come to play with us.
No one was ever available. Each time we’d knock, we’d be told that they were busy, or getting ready to go somewhere else. “Maybe another time,” their mothers would tell us.
Now, I see we were the neighborhood oddity. I didn’t know it then. I remember a mother’s reply when a typical American child asked her who we were and why we had scarves with oranges tied around our heads. She replied, “Migrant workers from somewhere.”
I have so many funny stories from my childhood. I tell them to our three children, and they laugh. I can either paint a picture to my children of me feeling lost and alone and rejected, or I can laugh with them and be thankful that the childhood I had was one that has enabled me to fill notebooks with my writings, and I’m not even close to being out of stories.
In my life, when given a choice between laughter or tears, I always choose laughter.
But, I no longer choose orange-filled bandanas.
November 16, 2011: This essay was mentioned in the CNN food blog, Eatocracy, in a post titled The Kid With the Stinky Lunch, a humorous collection of recollections by the children of immigrants and their own elementary cafeteria experiences.
Alexandra is a first-generation American raising three boys full time, while she caters part time. She lives with her husband and children in a small Wisconsin town and writes of the sweet and the funny at her humor site, Good Day, Regular People.