Story and Photos by Diego Rivera
I knew coming to college would be difficult, but I never expected food to be the most painful transition. Initially, I found myself affected by the usual symptoms of homesickness: I missed my family, my friends, my bed. Bit by bit I adapted: Making new friends, calling my parents and brother and getting used to my cramped but cozy dorm room. After a few weeks I felt I had acclimated well, but there was still something missing and I couldn’t quite place it. Eventually it hit me: I missed my food. I’ll admit, this isn’t exactly unique. Everyone complains about dining hall food and prefers their mom’s cooking. But I realized this spoke to a larger culture shock that I had been experiencing.
Growing up in Weston, Florida, I became used to a deeply Hispanic environment. When I went over to friends’ houses, I spoke in Spanish with their parents. My city, in South Florida, had at least five Colombian restaurants and multiple restaurants from many other Latin American countries. We had bakeries serving Hispanic goods, chain supermarkets (Go Publix!) that had expansive aisles dedicated to Goya and the like, and a high school with more Hispanic students than white. It was here that I had gotten used to my culture, my language, and my food being the norm. On Saturdays, I was used to waking up to the smell of buñuelos, fried cheesy dough balls. On the days I didn’t, I could drive 10 minutes to pick them up at my favorite bakery of the bunch, La Pequeña Colombia. A small celebration ritual I adopted was grabbing three chicken empanadas, dousing them in lime, and eating them one after another in my car. Asking for manzana at these restaurants meant you would get a neon pink Postobón Manzana soda and not an apple.
Food was the most direct link to my culture that I had. In Boston, I found myself grasping to regain this link. I was surrounded by a huge variety of new, amazing restaurants, and yet none of them had the food I so desperately craved. I could go entire days without speaking Spanish to anyone. No one around me could relate when I mentioned missing the cartoon Condor I had grown up reading – Condorito. I was surrounded by thousands of other students and people, yet still felt painfully alone.
Enter East Boston.
During one of our calls, my mom mentioned that a friend said it had a prominent Colombian (and Hispanic in general) population. Until then, I barely knew East Boston existed. I checked it out on Google Maps afterwards, starred a Colombian restaurant, and dropped the idea for a few weeks.
Once I was less overwhelmed by classes, I gathered a few friends and made the trek over to El Peñol. I immediately could tell we were in the right place when the signs on windows switched into Spanish. I giddily identified different Spanish accents in the restaurant and flipped through the menu pointing out the dishes that defined my childhood. As much as I wanted to, I couldn’t order everything, so after a heart-wrenching selection process I decided on a staple and ordered rice and chicken with plantains. After the meal, I took my friends to a nearby corner store and showed off the junk food of my childhood: Pony Malta (sugary malt beverage), Bon Bon Bun (lollipops), Jet Chocolate (chocolate bars that came with stickers in each bar), and more. I bought some of each and watched intently as I saw my friends trying for the first time the foods that were central to my life. The whole experience was a highlight of my freshman year.
When something in our lives is a truly fundamental piece of our being, we often only realize its importance when we feel its absence. I had a hard time coming to Northeastern and being so far from my home. I felt out of place and missed the life I took for granted. There are many other developments that helped me build my new life here, but I cannot overstate the importance of East Boston and El Peñol in easing this acclimation. My trips there are incredibly infrequent, and yet whenever I am there, I find myself grinning with joy.
This past summer, the desire to revisit struck me. As I sat in a Colombian bakery, surrounded by Colombian accents and with Carlos Vives playing on the speakers, I felt blissful. Every bite of my buñuelos and every sip of my jugo de mora grounded me and reminded me of my childhood. Visiting these restaurants and eateries invigorates me and brings me true joy. My food is my home and my home is my food. No matter what is going on in my life, when I bite into an empanada, everything is okay.