By: Ana DeBernardo – Jan. 2016
The minute I stepped off the plane, the familiar sensations struck me like a thunderbolt. Five years had passed since the last trip, but it seems that in my absence the distinctive sounds and smells had only been put on pause. All of my fondest memories were transported into the present. The ride from the Asunción airport to Abuelita’s house in Itá Enramada seemed like an endless dream, as I struggled to realize what was truly happening. After all, I was just six years old the last time I had seen my family and I was struggling to imagine all of their faces and trying to put names to the dozens of aunts, uncles and cousins that would soon engulf me in an ocean of kisses. And, of course, I would not escape the constricting clutches of Abuelita.
Anesthetized by the jetlag, and after what seemed an eternity of driving, we finally arrived at the small adobe house. The anticipation swelled as I waited for my mother’s cue and braced myself for the savagery that was awaiting me beyond the car door. Upon opening the door, I was immediately lost in the mob of relatives, all eager to bestow the customary double kiss in every direction I turned. When the rabble had died down and the expected formalities had been exchanged, everyone was herded back into the house by Abuelita, and the yerba mate (cold tea, which we drink through metal straws from tin cups) was prepared and doled out. Now the imperative undertaking was free to begin: Chinchón. Even I, away from the spectacle for five years, understood the importance. This was not just another card game. This was suspense, hope, excitement, anger, disappointment, and joy all enveloped into one event. Sure, my parents play Chinchón with us around the kitchen table at home in Massachusetts, with the mandatory Paraguayan-style playing cards, but when a family of five plays, it is just a pleasant game…when twenty extended family members get together in Paraguay, it is a death match.
Everyone divided into the habitual groups of five, placed their bets, and dove earnestly into their respective games, following the ritual. Before long, the lively conversation quickened with the intensity of the game, the laughter punctuated by the clinking of metal straws in metal cups. I nudged my brother and we both smiled as we watched our mom bantering in Guaraní with her sisters as she slipped back into her old routine. Within an hour of our arrival, it felt as if we had never left.
After hours of intense warfare, my very proud eleven-year-old self emerged victorious, ready to point out to whoever would listen that I, a true paraguaya, had won, regardless of my five-year absence. We wrapped up the night with another round of double kisses and a blessing from Abuelita, and as quickly as the first night had arrived, it vanished. The next two months seemed to fly by even faster. We spent our days catching up with old family friends and visiting all of our favorite haunts. We would ask Abuelita to make all of our favorite “old country” dishes, wondering if they would taste the same as we had remembered all these years. She would dutifully indulge us, and yes, the chipá guazú and the arroz quesú tasted even better than before.
Many people have asked me which I like best; living in the States, or being in Paraguay. The answer is always the same. The Boston area is my home, and I would not have wished to grow up anywhere else. I could write a separate essay all about my pride in being American. However, coming from an immigrant background does allow you another perspective that makes you feel you are part of two places. I cherish the simplicity of the Paraguayan lifestyle, the charm of the traditions, the authenticity of the people, and the uniqueness of the language and culture. The lilting Paraguayan harp’s familiar chords and the tricolor flag (red, white and blue, fittingly) awaken in me the strongest sense of pride.