A Summer Twice Visited
© Copyright 2021 by Sienna Joshi
This piece depicts my early travels to Argentina visiting my mother’s family. It is based on my childhood memories. It is a real-life portrayal of being a first generation, biracial and bilingual girl on one of her first travels outside the United States.Summers in Argentina will always stand out in my memories in sunshine brilliance; my two younger sisters will agree. We have only ever spent two summer holidays in Mama’s home country - one of which I was too young to remember more than strawberry popsicles, sparklers, and Papa Noel - but they were particularly special. Maybe this was because these summer trips to the small, seaside town of La Lucila existed in the middle of my winter. Flying down from the United States to Argentina to visit my family was like visiting a little pocket of sunshine amidst the months of cold. I’ve always preferred the chilling winds and falling leaves of autumn, but I loved everything about summers there. They were so vibrant, brighter than the countless summers I spent at home. The sun was hotter and the sea more welcoming, and every moment was dedicated to playing and eating. I was surrounded by family members; primos, abuelos, tios, and tias who I only saw every couple of years, making every moment precious and memorable. Even the gossip and slapping were affectionate and comforting to my ears, despite the fact that I couldn’t understand some of the words. But there was never a bed for me.
Sometimes, when the heat grew unbearable, we’d get a good downpour. These showers were not uncommon, but to a skinny San Diegan girl who never owned a pair of waterproofs, the rain was dazzling. All the kids down the street would come running out, cartwheeling and holding their tongues to the grey sky, and pulling each other to the cracked sidewalk whenever a car came by shouting “coche, coche!”. We’d chase the giant toads that ventured out at the rain’s cooling touch, some of us brave enough to catch them under sandcastle buckets, but most of us were afraid of their slimy faces and left them well alone, counting them from a safe distance to see who could find the most. Around the time my jeans started to become heavy around my legs, Tia would call us back inside and scold us for getting wet, saying we’d catch a cold and wouldn’t be allowed to go to the beach tomorrow. These, of course, were just empty threats which dissipated as she served us steaming mug of mate cocido con leche with far more sugar than Mama would ever allow.
The food was a major improvement from the classic cheese burgers and slurpees of the U.S.. There was an endless supply of it and everything, from the snacks to the cookies to the family dinners was delicious. Every morning I was woken up by the baker’s shouting and ringing bells, calling the residence out for hot churros stuffed with dulce de leche and chocolate. For lunch we would have sandwiches de miga or tortilla de papa or some sort of homemade casserole one of the Tias had cooked up. These were usually eaten on the beach in the shade of the small tent we got all summer on account of Tio being a part of the beach club. If we ever got hungry between meals, which we always did, we’d buy something off of the men pushing carts up and down the beach or along the town’s narrow streets selling ice creams, popcorn, and corn on the cob with salt and yellow butter. As a kid, there were so many older relatives that all I had to do was flash a smile and someone would take me by the hand and get me a snack.
Sometimes, if I got lucky under the burning afternoon sun, I’d get three ice cream cones in one day from one of the two heladerías in town. They served the creamiest ice cream I have ever tasted. It was somehow thick and fluffy, all handmade, and available in so many flavors that my primos would get impatient at how long it’d take me to choose. They didn’t quite understand that it was my one chance to get dulce de leche flavored ice cream for the next several years and that I wanted to make it count.
Every once in a while, for dinner we’d have Argentine BBQ which is nothing like the overly sweet American version. They grill every part of the animal and it’s all mouth-watering and fatty and warm and perfectly crispy around the edges. But it takes hours to make and my stomach would growl so loudly that Abuela would start feeding me galletitas just so I wouldn’t start whining and annoy my parents. She would make me and my sisters help set the table in the back patio too. There were so many of us that we had to put three tables together, a little one on the end for the kids, all joined together with faded tablecloths. We pulled massive jars of chimichurri and jalapenos from the fridge and arranged heaping baskets of freshly made bread between the wooden plates. To my childish delight, they always had giant, two liter bottles of Coke and 7up and orange Fanta which I was never allowed to drink at home, but which I gulped down happily during these summer dinners. I even liked the cutlery, which had worn wooden handles that felt soft and heavy in my small hands, compared to the usual stainless-steel ones.
But my favorite was the facturas, or pastries as Americans would call them, which we got from the bakery every day. There was a whole array of them and I loved going with Tia or Abuela and picking out each flavor, making sure to get the ones with chocolate or dulce de leche filling. Once we were satisfied with our selection, we’d bring them all up to the counter and the baker would pile them masterfully on a little white paper tray, wrapping them up in brown paper and tying it closed with a string like a present. Sometimes Abuela would let me carry it back to the beach tent. I had set the package on the table and sit on someone's lap - because there were never enough chairs for all of us.
I never talked much in the tent. Instead, I’d listen carefully, desperately trying to decipher their rapid Spanish punctuated by slang and turns of phrases I couldn’t keep up with. I ended up laughing at jokes I didn’t understand and whispering English to my sisters just for a reprieve of easy understanding. Among the chatter I’d sneak sips of Papa’s beer as I watched the Mamas force sunscreen onto the little’s scrunched up faces. Eventually, someone brought out the mate in a hand carved gourd and poured steaming water into it from an old-fashioned glass thermos. Someone else opened the brown paper and began cutting the facturas in half so everyone would get to try all the flavors. Then we would all be munching and sipping, feeding each other and passing the mate around in endless circles. A game of cards or dice would start up with someone keeping score on a stained notepad dusted with sand, but it was never the betting type and if I’d been behaving myself, they’d let me win.
Later, when the sun had dropped over the sea making it sparkle, I would run into the water with mis primos and we’d swim and splash each other. The water was refreshing, but always warmer than the perpetually frigid Pacific of home. We’d play sirenas and argue endlessly about the colors of our imaginary tails and the magical powers we had. Sometimes Tia would come out of the tent and watch us worriedly from the shore, hands on hips, just getting her toes wet. She’d yell at us to not go out too far because it was dangerous and a shark might get us. I always laughed and pretended not to hear, swimming a little farther. I’d dare the others to join me and we’d swim until we couldn’t reach, but then the youngest would get scared and we’d all scurry back to shore, shivering. Back at the tent, the tias who would wrap us up in towels, but I would dodge their arms to jump on Papa’s unsuspecting back and hug his brown, sun-warmed skin. He’d protest at my wet, icy arms around his neck, but there was always a soft kindness in his eyes.
Sometimes we would head home early in the afternoons so the grownups could make dinner. Me and los primos would keep ourselves occupied by playing hopscotch, the complicated, competitive kind with the little stone you have to throw into the right square. It almost always ended in vengeful tears and we’d be called inside for butter cookies with milk and Abuelo would hug and kiss away the tears of whoever was crying. He’d crack jokes and tickle us until our fleeting sorrows were replaced by childish giggles. And I’d ignore the jealousy that he wasn’t my Abuelo and that he’d never come to my birthday parties as he did for all my primos.
After dinner, we’d sometimes watch a peli a tio or tia had bought us from one of the illegal stands lining the boardwalk. We’d have to take it in turns watching them in English with Spanish subtitles and the other way around because the youngest couldn’t read fast enough, and the oldest ones would have to whisper the translations to them the whole movie. But we still enjoyed them. All of us piled on top of each other to fit in front of the small, old television set.
Summers in Argentina have always been my best summers, even if I couldn’t speak the language perfectly, even if I knew I’d have to leave. They were little paradises of food and sea and family and I loved them for that.