MADE IN COLOMBIAHelen Cavallo
I’m flying back from a week in Colombia. I was there doing press for my new show that I’m hosting, That’s Fresh Colombia. I’m in a bit of disbelief of all the wonderful and indescribable things that have happened this week. I’ve been nervous, overwhelmed, grateful, full of pride, and love. This week has mostly reaffirmed my belief in magic and divinity.
Colombia is where my mother Marina is from…La Palma, Colombia to be exact. It’s a small pueblo, town. My mother was one of 13 children. From a young age she was hell bent on going to America. My cousin Eva who is closest to me in age, tried to explain to me what it was like for a young girl from a tiny village in Colombia to say she was going to America in those days: “It was like saying that one day she would go to the moon. It was a nice dream, but it was just that…a dream.”
Well my mom did go to America. She landed in New York determined to make her way and create a life for herself. She learned English, took a job at the Bulova Watch Company, and met my Dad, Joseph Cavallo. From what I’ve been told, they had a beautiful courtship. They traveled throughout Europe together, visited Colombia, and after a year and a half they married. My mom wrote to her sisters, my tias often and told them of her travels and the life she was creating. I was born 9 months later (almost shotgun style). I think I was “made” in Colombia where they honeymooned…hmm.
My sister Grace arrived three and a half years later. We lived in Staten Island. My earliest memories are of going to Colombia. We would stay for long periods with my parents and we’d visit with my abuleos (grandparents), tias (aunts), and tios (uncles) and what seemed like a million cousins. My family in Colombia is HUGE. To this day I meet new cousins I’ve never met before. It’s like bumping into someone in the street and being told, by the way, I’m family. My childhood memories are very vivid. I can remember events, places, and faces clearly. At the age of 6, after a long stay, I forgot how to speak English when we came home. It took a minute to get it back.
My parents were very well regarded. My dad would play baseball with the kids on our calle, street, in Colombia. He would take everyone to the movie theater because it was the only place in our little town by the equator that had air conditioning. My mom was known for bringing gifts from America to all her siblings and nieces and nephews—no one was ever left out. It was usually something small but well-cherished. I’m reminded of this every time I visit.
My father passed away when I was 8 years old. He died of cancer. It happened very quickly. To say it changed our lives forever would be an understatement. That same year we went back to Colombia to visit. It was a bittersweet trip as my dad was very much loved and we were heartbroken that he wasn’t with us. But as families do, ours gathered around us and loved us and tried to help us heal. We stayed for two months, enjoying the company of our family and trying to readjust to life without my father. My mom decided we would return to our home in Staten Island as she felt it was a better life for us in the States. When we left we promised as we always did that we would return the following year.
A year and a half later my mother died. She had a brain aneurysm. No one knew. We thought she was invincible. There was nothing she couldn’t do. She was our cheerleader, our protector, our adventurer. She was loved and now out of nowhere she was gone. A piece of me died when my mom did. Life would never be the same. There would be many hardships. Her loss was something we learned to live with but I don’t think we ever recovered from it. At 10 years old I made the decision that Grace and I would never be separated. We didn’t have a lot of options but whatever our choices were we had to be together.
There was talk of going to Colombia or staying in New York to live with some relatives from my dad’s Italian side of the family. In the end we felt that staying in New York was the better choice. Was it? All these years later I question it but it was what was meant to be. One day I’ll write about that decision and it’s impact. When I think about that time it seems so long ago, as if it happened to someone else, not us. But it did…
My mom’s passing was a terrible blow to the entire family. She was the one they were always rooting for, the one who dared to dream bigger than anyone thought possible. My tia Olga was the one who always wrote and called us, religiously. My tia Stella, tia Leonor, and tia Nena would take turns checking in on us with a call and we were always in their prayers. We were and are las niñas, the girls. We’ve been called that our whole lives. My tias are a very big part of who we are and they are a great reminder of our mother.
It was 10 years before we saw our family in Colombia again after my mother died. We were little girls the last time they saw us and when we returned we were young adults and we had difficulty speaking Spanish. After that first visit to Colombia we traveled there a few times but could only stay for two weeks each visit as we were working then and trying to create lives of our own. But Colombia always remained in our hearts.
The last time I was with my family was 7 years ago. I had just quit my job and was taking time to figure out the rest of my life. Grace and I stayed a month; the longest we had stayed in some time. Each trip was filled with new memories, and with memories of our parents as if the very mention of them brought them closer to us…if only for awhile.
A little about my tias… They are amazing, strong, beautiful, intuitive, salt of the earth women. When you hear the term “it takes a village” I think it was meant to describe them. My aunts helped raise all of my cousins. It didn’t matter who’s kid you were, they took care of you, fed you, put you to bed, and disciplined you…like with a “look,” a “look” that meant business. No one ever dared cross them. I’m sure a lot of my Latin friends can relate…everyone knows “the look.”
In Colombia almuerzo, lunch, is a very big deal. It’s the main meal of the day. And because my family is so huge my tias know how to cook for a crowd. They are amazing cooks. Everything they make from sopas, to arroz con pollo, carne, and pescado is one of the most delicious things I’ve ever tasted. They cook simply, with big, bold flavors. I learned to cook and appreciate what it means to sit down at the table with family and people you love from them. Because they come from un pueblito chiquito, a small village, they know how to kill a chicken, take off its feathers, cook it, and make a terrific meal. They may not have come from money but their vast knowledge of what it means to live from the land is ingrained in their being. They can walk through a field and pick herbs that they make into aguitas, or teas to help cure whatever ails you. If you have a stomach ache, fever, cold, can’t sleep…there’s un remedio para todo, a remedy for everything. My love and appreciation for eating well and recognizing the bounty of the land comes from them. “Organic” isn’t even something they know or care about because it’s just part of life, as if, what else is there?
In That’s Fresh I make recipes that are simple and delicious, and I try to have some fun too. The idea is to empower YOU to feel good about the choices you make when it comes to food and nutrition. Through my recipes I try to impart the lessons I’ve been taught in the kitchen and in life.
When I was told that there was a chance that I’d be working in Colombia I was in disbelief…like Colombia, Colombia? Are you sure? How is that possible? I mean what are the chances of all the countries in the world that Colombia would be the one that comes up?
In some crazy way I KNEW in my heart that my mom and dad had a hand in this.
I’m flying back from Colombia now. This past week we shot a one-hour special with my new friends at Channel 13 and the Ministry of Television in Colombia. That’s Fresh Colombia will begin shooting this year. We are slated for 13 episodes to air in Colombia.
I am proud to be a Colombian-American who has the opportunity to work in a country that means so much to me, doing what I love to do…COOK! I get to fully represent who I am, where I come from, and what it means to me. What brings tears of joy to my eyes is that I get to fully enjoy all of this with my family, with my tias, primos, and my hermana…my sister Grace is coming with me. This good fortune isn’t just for me, it’s for my family. It’s for my mom and dad. So with a very full heart I say gracias, thank you for this gift. I will try to make you proud.
THAT’S FRESH COLOMBIA 2013! CANAL 13 COMING SOON!