February 27, 2021 – Washington Co., WI – Bananas were never Grandma’s favorite fruit, but if I peeled it and cut it up, she would eat it. One day Grandma said, in her broken English….. “Man try poison me with banana. I eat and get sick on train. I never like banana.”
In the late 1870’s through early 1920’s, any immigrants entering the US from Europe, first landed at Ellis Island Immigration before entering New York Port. If an immigrant was deemed mentally competent, physically sound, had someone who would vouch (offer monetarily support) for him/her, a person could legally enter into the US.
Upon leaving Ellis Island, immigrants were often given a sack of food, including fruit. Bananas, easy to carry and eat, were common.
So, my Grandma, aged maybe 16 or 17, with no English, successfully passes through Ellis Island, whether alone or with another family member, and is given her sack of food by an immigration officer. On the train to Pueblo, Grandma gets hungry, opens her sack and sees a fruit she had never seen before in her life.
So, she eats the banana, peel and all and promptly gets sick. Fifty years later, she shares her story with me, still full of anger, at the man who tried to poison her. I could barely believe she didn’t know how to eat a banana. But then again, I was only 12 or 13 and I thought I knew more than my immigrant Grandma who spoke “broken English.”
Grandma had unknowingly taught me a lesson about immigrants and cultural competency but it would be many years before I realized it.
In late 1996, I began to work with the newly arriving Mexican rural immigrants. One November I received a donation of frozen turkeys to distribute to the Latinos. I was so excited as Mexican women knew how to cook turkeys as turkeys (pavos or guajalotes) are common food in Mexico. Imagine my surprise when that night my phone rang…
“Buenas tardes Maestra. Disculpeme la molestia pero nadie sabe como preparar estos guajalotes congelados. Por favor, ayudenos.”
“Good evening Teacher. I am sorry to bother you, but no one knows how to cook these frozen turkeys. Please help us.”
I had forgotten the lesson of my grandmother and the banana. What is a common and helpful food or cultural knowledge, i.e. how to kill and cook turkeys fresh from the daily market or your backyard, does not help when given a frozen block of turkey, covered in plastic.
Thank you, Grandma. I remembered.