A Taste of Puerto Rico

To many, my grandmother, Carmen Santiago, is known as the “pastele lady.”  

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, my family was separated from our close relatives, including my grandmother. When we finally saw her months later, everyone was joyous and teary-eyed. 

Through my photographs, I want to explore how my grandmother has been holding up for the past year. She is a home attendant for my great grandmother.  In addition to taking care of her, she has many other responsibilities. My grandmother came to New York from Puerto Rico at the age of seven. Being a self-taught cook, she makes and sells delicious pasteles and other traditional Puerto Rican dishes for her neighbors and friends.

Getting ready to start her day, my grandmother, Carmen Santiago, opens her curtains and says hello to her plants. May 2021.

My grandmother gets ready to cook by putting on her hairnet and gloves. She wears them to ensure there is no contamination when she is making the pasteles. May 2021.

My grandmother cuts up green plantains for her pasteles. May 2021.

A pastele is a traditional Puerto Rican dish made of plantains, yuca, and usually a meat filling. Compared to many American dishes, pasteles are not easy to make. It takes a whole day to make a batch of a dozen or more. 

I was curious to know how my grandmother became the person she is today, so I spent some time with her, learning about her daily routine. She also gave me my first lesson in making this wonderful Puerto Rican delicacy: pasteles. When my grandmother started selling pasteles in 1994, she told me, she first sold them to her friends.

Surfaces reflecting my grandmother preparing food. May 2021.

“It's like a chain where my friends offer it to their friends. That's how my business started to grow. I started to get more orders by phone.” Many would be surprised to learn that my grandmother’s business blossomed during the pandemic.

As we worked together, her kitchen was filled with the rich aroma of seasoned meat and boiling plantains. To me, the room felt like a small piece of Puerto Rico in the Bronx. In my hands, the plantain leaves were dry and smooth, yet the kitchen was warm and misty with clouds of steam coming from the stove top. 

My grandmother breaks a sweat working in her steamy kitchen. May 2021.

My grandmother’s busy schedule. May 2021.

Preparation of my great-grandmother’s daily dose pills. May 2021.

My grandmother works long hours creating dozens of pasteles. May 2021.

My grandmother holds her pot steady so none of the ingredients spill out. May 2021.

A portrait of My grandmother and my brother Jordan. South Bronx. May 2021.

My grandmother runs errands with my brother. May 2021.

As I walked with my grandmother through the Bronx streets recently, I heard her customers call out to her, “Carmen!” or “Pastele Lady!”  They were asking her for more pasteles.

Overhead view of my grandmother’s workspace. May 2021.

First, my grandmother showed me how to dry the plantain leaves with paper towels after carefully washing them. Next, we blended banana and yuca into a paste known as masa.  We laid the masa on banana leaves, then spooned chicken into the masa, flattening it out with a spoon in a circular motion.  Afterward, we folded the pasteles in half with parchment paper, then carefully tied a string around each one. Lastly, we dropped them into a boiling pot of water for about an hour.

Closeup of my grandmother’s scar from an incident where she tried to save her mother. May 2021.

My grandmother teaches me how to make pasteles. She also makes rellenos de papa, alcapurrias, alcapurrias de yuca, and pastelitos. May 2021. 

Cooking with my grandmother not only taught me how to make pasteles, but made me closer with her. As we talked, I learned about her past and how she came to take on multiple jobs at once. In addition to her cooking for so many, she also takes great care of her elderly mother, my great grandmother, does the shopping, the laundry, and helps support everyone in the house. She has a son that is taking an online college course, and a daughter that is about to graduate from high school, along with her parents who are living with her. Her oldest son, my father, has a thriving family and is currently a photographer, doing what he loves to make people happy--just like his mother with her pastele business.

Closeup of my grandmother reading the bible. She prays everyday for her family and friends. May 2021.

A painting of the Virgin Mary watches over my grandmother and her loved ones. May 2021. 

My family enjoys each other’s company at the end of a long day. May 2021.

A portrait of my grandmother. At this moment she was thinking about her future with her family. May 2021.

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