Under the Mango Trees
Air Date: Week of December 21, 2001
Austin, Texas storyteller Elida Guardia Bonet, shares a tale of growing up under the mango trees in Panama. Host Steve Curwood, Latino USA host Maria Hinojosa, and storyteller Antonio Sacre join her in a discussion following the story.
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CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. You may notice it's not our usual theme music this week, because it's not our usual program. Today, we take a break from the sometimes challenging news of environmental change and concerns about human health to celebrate this season of the return of the light. Of course, it's no accident that we humans take time to pause when the sun hits its low point in the northern sky, for this is the time when the old passes away and the new begins to bud, when the days slowly begin to grow longer again even if there is more snow still to come.
But certainly one does not need snow to celebrate. Indeed today, in cooperation with NPR's Latino USA, we head south to Latino landscapes for our celebrations. So, joining us are Latino storytellers to share their personal stories of celebration, culture and landscape. We have Maria Hinojosa, CNN reporter and host of Latino USA, here to tell us a tale of the Mexican holiday, the Day of the Dead. She's joining us from New York. Hi there, Maria.
HINOJOSA: Hey Steve, how you doing?
CURWOOD: And from Los Angeles, we're joined by Cuban storyteller and actor, Antonio Sacre. Antonio is the son of a Cuban, and, though he's never been to Cuba himself, he'll take us there, by opening his father's heart. Hi there, Antonio.
SACRE: Hi, Steve.
CURWOOD: And from Austin, Texas, by way of Panama, we're joined by storyteller Elida Guardia Bonet, who will make our mouths water with a story of mangoes. Welcome.
BONET: Hola, Steve.
CURWOOD: Elida, I can't wait to hear your story. Once I heard that you were going to tell us about growing up with mangoes in Panama, I have to say I got a bit envious, because I didn't discover mangoes until I was an adult, and now, to be honest, I can't get enough of them. So, why don't you begin.
BONET: I was a young child, six, when my family moved from Puerto Rico, where I was born, to Panama, my father's country. We were greeted by aunts and uncles and cousins that I had never met or, if I had, I did not remember. Being a big family--we were eight at the time; Tommy would come later--it was hard for us to find a place to live. We found an apartment, but there was no yard for me to play in. There were no trees for me to climb. And the best day of the week was on Sundays, when my father got all eight of us into a Pontiac maroon station wagon and off he went, off we went, to discover and explore the countryside and the city of our new home.
My favorite spot was Mango Street--well, that's not really the name of it, that's what I called it--for it was this long, narrow street, lined with mango trees. And my dad will park the car and we'll run out and we will gather as many mangoes as we could and we ate as many mangoes as we could and we took home as many mangoes as we could.
Well, we finally found a house big enough for all of us. Well, that is, after my father added bedrooms and bathrooms and a place for the cars. But the yard, for a young child, it was a huge yard, and full of trees. There were lemon and lime trees. There were papaya trees. There were coconut palm trees, and there were four mango trees, and two of them by my bedroom.
One of them was a little tree, but from the trunk there was a branch that made a special nook for a child to climb up and daydream, like all children do. Those mangoes were little. They didn't taste like much. And we didn't eat them. But the other mango tree on the other side of my bedroom, well, it was not really our tree, it was our neighborhood's tree, but all of the branches fell to our side. And at the beginning of mango season, we ate those mangoes, but they were "mangos de lacha," the fiber kind, the ones that get between your teeth. And at the height of mango season, when the other trees gave us their fruit, we allowed for these mangoes to fall to the ground and rot, and the smell of mangoes would come in through my bathroom window and permeate my sheets, my clothes. There were days that I went to school smelling like mango.
I went to an all-girls' school and in that uniform, in that skirt, in that pocket during mango season, there was always a mango, a green mango from the tree at the back of the yard. Those mangoes were so big, we called them "huevo de torro." We used to eat them green. We sliced them. We added salt and pepper and vinegar and we ate them, until our lips were raw or we had a stomachache.
Now, the best mangoes came from the tree by my parents' bedroom. It was not a very big tree. The mangoes were not that big, but they were called "mangos de calidad," quality mangoes, for they had no fiber. They were juicy and sweet. Oh, everybody loved our mangoes. My Tia Irena would come asking for mangoes for her mango ice cream, sweet and creamy. My cousin, Dianita, she will come asking for mangoes for her mango chutney. She made it with the mangoes from our backyard, but she never shared her recipe. But sometimes during mango season, in the mail, I get a jar of mango chutney from my cousin Dianita.
We ate mangoes every which way you can imagine. We sliced them for breakfast, we sliced them for snacks, we sliced them for desserts. Even my mother loved mangoes. But there was a problem: my mother was a gringa, from the United States, and if she grabbed that mango from the tree and the milk of the mango touched her hand, her skin, the next day she had a rash; she was red. They say that only happens to gringos, and it must be, for it only happened to her in our family.
The best part was that from that mango tree to that coconut palm tree, my father hanged the hammock. And there I lay and I guard the mangoes, making sure the birds didn't get them before we did, making sure the other kids in the neighborhood didn't get them before we did. And there I used to sit with my mother and she will tell me stories. It was there that she told me why we had moved to Panama: to be near my father's family, to learn his culture, his language, but so many years had gone by I did not remember any other place. Panama was my home. I loved it.
Years later, I went away to St. Louis, Missouri, my mother's city, to go to college, but there were no mango trees there, there were no hammocks. I was homesick. And I returned to what would be the last time with my mother, and under that mango tree, in that hammock, I share with her my dreams. I wanted to be a teacher. And then we talked about boys, the many boys that I liked, and my mother laughed and said, "Ay, Elida, you are in love with love."
I returned to the United States, to Austin, Texas, to continue my studies, and I fell in love, and not with love but with my husband-to-be. And I returned to marry, under the mango trees that knew me as a young girl, that knew me as a young lady, and now saw me as a bride. And I bid my farewells knowing I was not to return. And back in Texas, when I get homesick, I go and I buy a mango, an imported mango from Mexico, and when I bite into it and I feel the juice, the sweetness, it takes me back to the home of my childhood. When I wake up now, I don't see mango trees; I see cedars and oaks. My hammock hangs between two oak trees, and there I lay, with my two daughters, and we share our dreams and our stories, just like I did, with my mother, a long time ago, under the mango tree.
CURWOOD: Elida, I have to say that here in Boston when the Mexican mangoes are at their peak and they go down to eight bucks for a case of them, that's one of my most favorite times of years. Except for the mango hair being stuck in my teeth, what's the secret about that?
BONET: It depends on the kind of the mango, if you get one with fiber or not.
CURWOOD: So, what's it look like if it doesn't have the hair in it?
BONET: You don't see like the little fibers through it, and when you bite into it, you just pick a big chunk of it. It feels maybe like a cantaloupe, that you don't feel anything, little fibers going through, any strings, so you can just really enjoy it and you don't have to be picking your teeth.
HINOJOSA: Yeah? I actually--mangoes, mangos. And I even love to say the word in Spanish, which is mango, because somehow it seems just, to me, to say mango brings back even more the memories that I have of mangos. And for me they were something that I only had when I would return the Mexico. So, it was very much a relationship of this fruit, this gorgeous, gorgeous fruit with this extraordinary variation of color: I mean, from bright green to bright yellow to this kind of dawn colored orange and pink. They were my favorite fruit, and, like Elida, I would eat them in Mexico for breakfast, and I would have one for dessert after lunch, and I would have one for dessert after dinner. And in Mexico--or at least in Tampico, which is where I really remember eating the mangoes, which is where my dad is from--we would take a fork, a special kind of fork, and you put it into the bone of the mango, el hueso de mango, and then you hold it and you peel it like a banana and then you eat it like ice cream, holding onto the fork. And the most difficult part was getting the hairs out of your teeth, but it was part of the fun.
CURWOOD: Hanging on with a fork and with like the juice dripping down your hand.
HINOJOSA: It's delicious.
SACRE: The first time that I went to Coney Island was with my fiancé, my wife-to-be, and the first mango she ever ate was there. And there was a man there, I don't know where he was from, maybe Puerto Rico, or the Dominican, but he took a mango, like you said, Maria. And he jabbed it on the fork and he peeled it back, and then he took this huge knife, like a machete, and just cut this perfect flower out of the mango and gave it to my wife, and she ate it like an ice cream cone. It was incredible to see that and to see her taste this mango, which was incredible. So, that's one of my sort of favorite experiences around a mango.
BONET: You're all very sophisticated with forks. We used to just grab it with our teeth, peel them, and just bite into them.
CURWOOD: Elida, tell me more about your wedding. What was it like for you, under that mango tree, getting married?
BONET: Well, it was wonderful. That's where we had our party, and that was my back yard, so we had canopies up and the whole family was there. My dad has a huge family. So, I was really surrounded by everybody I loved. My mother was the only one who was not there, but many of her very good friends were there. And it was just a wonderful feeling of knowing that I was not going to stay at home, but I was celebrating in a way my wedding, a new beginning, in the place that had seen me grown up. And, at the same time, I was saying goodbye in my favorite spot, under the mango tree.
CURWOOD: You're listening to the Living on Earth holiday special in cooperation with Latino USA. I'm Steve Curwood and we'll be right back.
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