Our conversations around food and culture boil down to a central feeling: representation — or sadly more common, the lack thereof. We want our foods and faces to be seen and heard outside of the walls of our homes and communities. As the daughter of a Cuban mother and Spanish father, I’ve been used to the world celebrating my dad’s culture while having much less of an understanding of my mom’s. Tapas, sangria, bold Rioja wines, sliced jamon, bull fights; even inauthentic depictions of Spanish traditions are at least a recognition of the real thing. I’m fortunate that I grew up in Miami, a place as close to Cuba as I worry I’ll ever get. Still, I never felt like I had much to point to as references of feeling seen as Cuban in mainstream media.
As an adult I have found comfort in the wonderfully charming and smart remake of One Day at a Time — sharp with its portrayal of the heartbreaking and all too common Cuban exile story, the importance of Vicks VapoRub to any Latin household, and an explanation of why Che Guevera, a man who served as Fidel Castro’s second-in command, is not the face you want to be sporting on your T-shirt — because, for some reason, we need to keep explaining this to people.
The latest source of joy from familiarity was a scene in In the Heights, the Jon Chu-directed movie adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s 2008 Broadway musical about a Latinx community in New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood. The film has received mostly glowing reviews and boasts a 96 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, though it would be remiss not to mention the ongoing conversation about colorism and In the Heights’s lack of Afro-Latinx people (which, in real life, make up a large percentage of Washington Heights’s population). Not every Latinx person got to see themselves reflected in the story which celebrates the diversity of our community, so I recognize that there’s an exclusivity that comes with feeling seen. But for me, as someone who’s rarely watched the comforts of a Cuban-American household portrayed so tenderly, I’d like to highlight the gorgeously detailed, authentically Cuban dinner spread prepared by abuela Claudia (played by Cuban-American actor Olga Merediz).
Around one hour into the film, we see a room lit mostly by candlelight. The story’s central characters are gathered at Claudia’s apartment to welcome back Nina, a daughter of the community who’s been away at Stanford, with a feast. (When two characters talk about the upcoming dinner earlier in the movie they note how much they’re going to eat.)
When the dinner scene kicks off, we’re zeroed in on an ornate blue and pink plate of scattered Ritz crackers topped with equal slices of guayaba y queso — the consummate combination (created by a Miami Cuban baker) of guava paste with cream cheese that fills many of the pastelitos in Cuban bakeries; it’s so good that it’s not uncommon to top the two ingredients onto one another for a single bite, on a spoon for a big mouthful, or, as seen here, on a cracker.
The meal expands to a bowl filled with a not-yet-tossed ensalada de papa, a baking sheet filed with Cuban tamales, a white casserole dish emblazoned with a blue flower that’s filled with arroz con pollo — the chicken very much still on the bone; the most beautiful, deeply stewed ropa vieja I’ve ever seen studded with sliced olives; a glistening pernil resting on top of the oven; and perfectly round flan with a caramel that leans on the pale side. I gasped at the sight of all the food with as much delight as I did the Marc Anthony cameo some five minutes prior, in awe of seeing near-exact replicas of the dishes that filled — and continue to fill — my family’s table.
This montage of Cuban foods barely holds only 10 seconds of the film, but it was still one of my favorite moments of the movie. I know I am lucky to feel a particular sense of being seen during the movie’s runtime; there really was so much that resonated with me in In the Heights, from Abuela Claudia singing about her days in La Vibora, an area in Havana where my family spent time, to the immigrant parents doing everything in and out of their power for the children to succeed.
It gave me hope that the othering of my culture and its food could abate, even if in small ways. Perhaps someone seeing this film looked up what the heck was on top of those Ritz crackers and decided to try the guava and cheese combo for themselves; or they got a sudden craving for flan and picked one up from the local, Latin bakery. Maybe fewer and fewer people will tell me that Cuban food feels so “heavy” to them, a bit too starch-y, or lacking in salads. For me, there isn’t anything quite like it, and there’s never been a depiction quite as poignant.