It all started on one of those rainy, humid mornings in Panama. There were protests on the streets against some new law that, as usual, hurt more than it helped.
The government closed the schools. With no one to watch over my 11- and nine-year-old cousins while she worked at the hospital, my aunt sent the girls by bus to spend the day with us and Teo, my familyâ€™s nanny.
When my cousins arrived, it felt like summer vacation all over again, all happiness and laziness. Teo gave us some change and let us go by ourselves to the chinito, the small neighborhood kiosk.
By the time we set out, the rain had slowed to a drizzle, hot steam rising from the sidewalks. We left the house without taking a shower, hoping for more rain to play in. My family lived on the top of a hill, by the suburbs, very close to Panama City’s international airport. We went out to the patio, put on our chancletas (flip-flops) and ran downhill, racing down the street to the house on the corner.
That house was rented to the Chinese family who owned a tienda or abarroteria. A tienda is bigger than a kiosk, but way smaller than a grocery store. To us they were Chinitos, which was a term that came to be used toÂ describeÂ the owners ofÂ all such tiendas of asian descent.
The oldest of the family members used to sit outside the chinito to read the paper in Chinese while waiting for her grandkids to come back from school. She would sit outside on a milk crate and clip her toenails, I could never resist turning and muttering beneath my breath when I saw her doing that; she didnâ€™t speak Spanish and I didnâ€™t speak Chinese, so it didnâ€™t matter. Unless, of course, one of her sons heard me and translated what I grunted to her. Then Iâ€™d run for my life!
I never got angry when they yelled at me for my rudeness, though, because whenever Iâ€™d buy cigarettes for my mom, they never told on me for buying a five-cent suelto (a single smoke) for myself. I smoked my first cigarette when I was 11 and it wasn’t because of the chinitos, but because of Teo. But that’s a story for another day.
Chinitos are so small you have to order whatever you want over the counter, like a pharmacy. Each chinito is different, but ours had a little of everythingâ€”a little fresh market, a butcher section, toys, lots of baked goods and, sometimes, piÃ±atas.
Until this day it surprises me they didn’t sell hampaos (filled buns) or siu mais (pork dumplings)â€”popular Chinese foodsâ€”at those chinitos, but I can’t frankly imagine a ten-year-old me eating dim sum. I wouldn’t even eat my mom’s seafood stew or coconut rice, much less some white empanada-looking thing stuffed with sweet and savory filling. What a silly, narrow-minded girl I was.
My cousins bought some kekis (coconut-ginger cookies), my brother bought an oreja (a cookie shaped like an elephantâ€™s ears) and I bought my favorite: Pascual lemon sandwich cookies. My little sister stayed home with Teo, and I made sure to bring her a gladiolaâ€”Panama’s stickiest caramel, responsible for most of my cavities.
We sat outside on the other side of the porch from the Chinese lady; she was done with her feet and now eating a strange-looking soup with pieces of white stuff and drinking a hot cup of coffee.
(Over the years I grew a passion for that white stuff and eat it frequently now. Hello, tofu).
We finished our snacks and ran back home. This time, the rain came down really hard, so we played around on our way back up the hill, my two cousins joking around with each other. They were similar to us in age, but they were girls, so their relationship was different from ours.
Though it was really hot, the rain made it all fun. We sat between the street and the sidewalk, right at the top of the hill, and laid on the ground. The cold water running on the hot pavement we were sitting on made it all enjoyable. We played until the rain stopped, and then it wasn’t fun anymoreâ€”the hot steam coming out of the ground made our clothes wet and heavy.
But I smiled even wearing my heavy wet clothes, walking home with my chancletas making funny splashy noises. I smiled because I loved the after-rain smell, and still do.
We went inside the house and Teo yelled at us for getting the living room wet, so we ran around the house hiding from her, stripping off our clothes all the way to the shower and fighting for our turns.
We changed our clothes and then it hit us. Our stomachs reminded us we hadnâ€™t eaten anything for hours, except those overly-sweet snacks. By the time everyone was cleaned and dressed up, we were really starving, but then Teo was taking a nap with my sister so we didn’t want to wake them up.
I went to the pantry and grabbed two cans of tuna. As I was using the can opener and trying not to get cut, my annoying brother kept pestering me, pulling my shirt or asking every 30 seconds, “JC, is it ready, is it ready yet?” At first I thought it was funny, but then it was driving me nuts, so I left the kitchen and went into the dining room. I wasn’t tall enough to work on the counter top anyway, so it was more comfortable to work from the dining table.
My two cousins sat patiently, one across the table and the other on my right. My brother went to play Nintendo in the next room, but kept yelling to ask if the sandwiches were ready. When I finally finished chopping and preparing the tuna salad, my brother dropped his game controller and sat next to me.
As the hungry brat repeated â€œIâ€™m hungry, the first sandwich is mine!â€ I started spreading salted butter on one slice, then spreading the Tuna salad on the other soft white slice of Wonder Bread. Then all I remember was me getting so mad at my brother that I added extra tuna salad to that slice and smacked the whole slice all over his face, rubbing it from left to right.
Right away, I shook my head in disbelief at what Iâ€™d just done. My brother’s face was red as a tomato and I was so afraid he’d do something crazy. Instead, he burst into laughter, and so did my cousins.
I can’t remember what happened afterwards. I’m assuming that Teo woke up from the commotion and everyone got something to eat. To this day, every time I remember that story I remember it differently, but one thing is for sure, I’ll never forget my brother’s face covered in tuna salad.
Â 1993 Tuna Salad Sandwich Recipe
2 cans of tuna
Miracle Whip mayonnaise to your taste
2 limes, juiced
1 medium onion, chopped
1 tomato, chopped
Salt, pepper and paprika
– Chop the leftover pasta and mix with the tuna, spices, mayonnaise, lime juice and chopped vegetables.
– Spread butter on one slice of bread. Spread the tuna mix on another slice. Place the buttered slice of bread on top and slice off the crust. (I was 10 years old, donâ€™t judge me.)
– Enjoy with a glass of milk (read line above).