Although the roads were marked in Puerto Rico—kinda, sorta—we couldn’t find the dang road that led us to my cousin’s house. And my cousin knew this would happen. Which is why she told my mom and me to wait for her at El Patio BBQ and that she’d escort us into the subdivision. We may have been visiting from California that summer, but, because we spend time in PR every year to see family, we thought we could handle it. So off we went, with confidence, toward Arecibo.
We knew we were officially lost when we saw the Walmart. We turned off the main highway. And turned. And turned. Until finally my mom spotted a trailer on the side of the road. It was hoisted on cinder blocks, with a sign out front: PINCHOS DE POLLO 3×5$.
A guava BBQ sauce lacquers Puerto Rican pinchos. Photo by James Ransom
Before I knew it, my mom had hopped out of the rental car and power-walked toward the trailer. When the vendor saw us, he pulled a couple of pre-marinated chicken skewers out of his Cambro food carrier and set them over the grill. The chicken danced and sizzled as it turned Hawaiian Tropic gold. Then, he slathered the skewers in that quintessential Puerto Rican guava BBQ sauce, whose sugars immediately started to caramelize and pop, lacquering the chicken. He removed the glazed skewers from the grill, placed a slice of French bread on top of each, and handed them to us.
We took a bite. It was thick and luscious, sweet, tangy, and sharp, the guava sauce a perfect counter to the rich dark meat. In PR, most everyone’s BBQ recipe is the same; the importance is the addition of guava. Some use fresh, some use packaged. This one tasted bright and juicy.
My mom and I stood in that parking lot, alongside Carretera 2, eating our delicious skewers, totally forgetting that we were lost, lost instead in our pinchos, and caught unawares when my cousin pulled up in her car 30 minutes later.
That vendor is no longer on the side of that road. I checked on my last visit to Puerto Rico in April, a few months after Hurricane Maria. His kiosk has been ravaged by the wild winds and washed away. All that’s left now are the cinder blocks that were enforced into the ground with rebar. There was also another vendor who had been in the same spot for several years; he sold piraguas snow cones. His kiosk is no longer there.
I don’t know where these vendors are now. Maybe they all moved to the States to find jobs and to start new lives. I just hope they’re okay.
I can’t bear to think that it’s been eight months since Maria. I’m still met with the staccato of the disconnected telephone line that belongs to my family back in Vega Baja, one of the cities that got an extra helping of flash floods in the aftermath of the already destructive hurricane. It’s hard to think about my gente suffering, while I’m here, virtually helpless, in Oakland. I sent money, care packages, and plane tickets to move friends and family from the motherland to this one. But it’s not enough.
Some people who want to help pack their bags and hit la isla strapped with potable water, solar energy sources, satellite phones, and corrugated metal to replace what were supposed to be temporary FEMA blue tarps on roofs. They’re hoping that when this upcoming hurricane season hits, it’ll be enough. It’s not enough.
Though I was just there in April, every day I scour the news. I saw recently that the death toll of 64 was a severely undercounted number, and that it’s actually closer to 5,000. Did anyone bother to check in on the ones who lived alone or were buried in muddy avalanches? The ones who were voiceless, abandoned and forgotten? It’s not enough. It’ll never be enough.
But that’s why it’ll be especially important this year to show support at the National Puerto Rican Day Parade in New York this Sunday. Honoring over 8 million Puerto Ricans living in both Puerto Rico and the United States, the NPRDP is being coined “the largest demonstration of cultural pride” in America. While millions gather to celebrate PR culture with food, music, and dancing, emotions will be running high as this will be the parade’s first year since Maria. The parade is expected to have even larger numbers than usual, including those who fled the island and became a part of the ni de aqui, ni de alla diaspora, neither here nor there. They will be in attendance.
Some would say that it’s always summer in Puerto Rico. This time of year is generally when tourists would be flocking into San Juan for their summer vacations. It’s the high season, as they say. It’s also the beginning of hurricane season.
This year, as my gente’s country faces forward and attempts to heal in the face of disaster, and as Puerto Ricans march with their hearts on their sleeves in the parade this Sunday, I’ll think of that summer before Maria, when my mother and I got lost on a highway in Vega Baja and found these pinchos de pollo, 3 for $5.
Makes 6 skewers
For the chicken skewers
- 12 boneless, skinless chicken thighs (about 4 1/2 pounds)
- 1 lime, freshly squeezed
- 1/2 cup orange juice, freshly squeezed
- 2 packets Goya Sazón (“con achiote and culantro”)*
- 2 tablespoons your favorite seasoning blend (Puerto Ricans use Goya Adobo, but I like to use Trader Joe’s 21 Seasoning Salute)
- Kosher salt, to taste
- 6 wooden skewer sticks, soaked in water
- Guava BBQ sauce, recipe follows
For the guava BBQ sauce
- 2 cups ketchup
- 1/4 cup water
- 1/4 cup light brown sugar
- 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice, freshly squeezed
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon fish sauce
- 1 tablespoon Sriracha
- 1 tablespoon chili-garlic sauce
- 1 tablespoon onion powder
- 5 cloves garlic, finely minced
- 1 cup guava paste, from the concentrated block, cut into small pieces