Since the fall of 2013, I lived in a predominantly Dominican and Puerto Rican neighborhood in the Bronx, where frozen yucca and massive aloe leaves were easier to find than arugula, and a woman wheeled a Dominican-style flavored ice truck around the neighborhood until ice itself coated the ground. Grocery shops and bodegas sold plantains 12-for-$2, and from one restaurant at the intersection of East Tremont and Carter Avenue, I learned the many forms plantains can take: mofongo, mangu, maduros, amarillos, tostones, pasteles (plantain dough)… all from the same base vegetable (or fruit, or starch…depending who you ask).
I had lived in the Bronx for just over four months when we, Gallatin’s Americas Scholars, went to Puerto Rico. Plantains captured the majority of my diet, and they took, as learned in the Bronx, multiple forms. After all, in 2010 Puerto Ricans consumed an average of 55.8 pounds of plantains per capita according to Puerto Rico’s Department of Agriculture (Ortiz Cuadra 176). Plantains are not just a basic nutritional staple in Puerto Rico (and multiple other Caribbean nations)—they are a cultural staple, part of Puerto Rican identity.
As immigrants settled in Puerto Rico, the plantain emerged as the ideal malleable food. Like the plantain’s ability to grow quickly under a variety of climate conditions, the plantain has created genuine roots in all sectors of Puerto Rican society—including those now not in Puerto Rico. Indeed, plantains “have become the vehicle for expressing a new sense of identity about the island as homeland” (178). The plantains on each corner of Tremont keep Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic alive, as immigrants feed themselves the lifeblood of their dear island. Although not physically grown in Tremont, plantains have found another “natural” home there as well as in the Caribbean. Food “reveals and measures how people, groups, and societies interact among themselves [and] relate to the world,” and plantains certainly are a key marker of what it means to be Puerto Rican (20). Although eating plantains does not literally bring Puerto Ricans back to Puerto Rico or Dominicans back to the Dominican Republic, you are what you eat, and you eat what you are.