La Cocina
Selena Martinez

As the saying goes, the kitchen is the heart of the home. The kitchen is the center of everything, it’s the safe place we always gravitate toward. In all my memories, the kitchen is always at the center of them all. In the first house I lived in the kitchen was large and open. All white—white tiled floors, white appliances, and white cabinets with an island at the center. To me, it was a stage where the magic happened. The performance would differ depending on the day: arroz con pollo on a dark and rainy Tuesday night or pancakes on a bright Sunday morning.

 

The best performances were always on holidays. Poking my head around the corner, I would see the kitchen come to life. My mother would stand at the island with every surface covered in something bright and colorful. There would be red and bell peppers, blue mixing bowls, silver measuring cups, black knives, bamboo cutting boards, and ornate glasses in all sizes and shapes. Music would play in the background; sometimes it was 80s pop hits, Celia’s Greatest Hits, or the MLB Calinete mix CD. She would dance while she cooked, whisking sauces and shaking seasoning in time with the music. Sometimes my father would come out and salsa dance her around the island.

 

The whole time they would be laughing.

 

There’s always sound in the kitchen—laughter, talking, shouting, and crying.

 

When my father died, the kitchen became a somber place. Relatives drove up from Miami, Orlando, and West Tampa. They came into the kitchen and stood around the island, sat around the kitchen table, leaned against the bar. Nobody moved to the living room; we all just crowded in the kitchen. Food was ordered and coffee made. First came out the matching set of dishes with the decorative little plates that we never used. And once all the tias and tios had those, then the cousins got the mismatched sets, from the faded Star Trek mug to the chipped Minnie Mouse mug we’d gotten from Disneyworld. All the funeral planning was done in the kitchen. My mother would pass from one side to the other using the land line. Sometimes she worked in a whisper, and sometimes she worked in a shout.

 

After that, my grandmother took care of me while mom was at work. Now I was a preteen, and my Abuela Gladys would take me back to her house and we would sit in her kitchen. Her kitchen was warm with cherry wood cabinets, black appliances, and red accents. She would begin by making a fresh pot of Cuban coffee so we could share a café con leche. (When I was younger there was always more leche than coffee but once I entered high school, it became more café than leche.) We would sit around her kitchen table drinking the café out of her Varadero beach mugs while she told me stories about growing up in Cuba. Like having only one bathroom for five kids and learning to drive by making turns around the palm tree in their yard. Sometimes she would help me with my Spanish homework, giving pronunciation advice and explaining why she didn’t know certain words. (Like broccoli. There is no broccoli in Cuba she would reply).

 

As I got older, the kitchen became my classroom. This was where Abuela taught me how to cook, with me learning family recipes and the stories attached to them. The pattern was always the same: I would eat one of the recipes, watch her make one, and then make one myself. We went through all the classics she knew: picadillo, paella, Spanish style tortillas, split pea soup, and chicken—so many chicken recipes. She showed me tips to add more flavor to the meals, to cook rice with beer instead of water and salting things two or three times. Music would also play while we cooked, just like with mom. It alternated between Spanish music and the Bee Gees.

 

As I grew older, the kitchen continued to be the center of my world, my true home. At every family gathering we congregated in a kitchen—big, small, galley-sized, or makeshift. When we ran out of chairs, we sat on countertops and took turns standing. The kitchen is where I applied for college, had my first alcoholic drink, and eventually learned of my mother’s cancer diagnosis. The morning she passed, away after we closed the door to her room, my sister, her boyfriend Jason, and I went in the kitchen lost even though we were home. We looked at each other wide eyed wondering what to do next.

 

Jason finally broke the silence and said, “How is it that we always find ourselves in the kitchen?”

 

Both my sister and I replied in in unison, “It’s our safe place.” The kitchen is all that and more, and that why I call it my home.

Selena Martinez if from Tampa. She is a graduate student at Simmons University. When she’s not working, she’s an amateur photographer.