My seven-year-old, meatless arms surge a fifteen-inch wooden spoon through a sea of nut and milk as it slowly transforms into a stubborn pillow of sucrose. I’ve thrown crumbs of pili nut along with three cans of condensed milk and sugar into an unforgiving wok. In just a few hours, these simple elements will all be transformed into precious blocks of nutty paradise—the candy of my childhood.
Sweet aromas pirouette through the air and tug at my nose. I perch myself on the counter, my great-grandmother, Mama, characteristically belts a Tagalog song, “…Ewan ko, bakit ba ganyan…” and my grandmother snips translucent plastic wrap into hundreds of uniform two-inch squares. Unmistakable signs that December has arrived.
My grandmother tells me to make sure it doesn’t burn: “Pag huminto, masusunog. Pag hindi matapos, hindi masarap.” Resting for a moment is unquestionable, but after two hours, the nutty soup has become stiff and nearly inflexible.
I glance to my side and see my grandmother stacking wrappers into rose and gold towers. I dream of the creaminess of the milk meeting the earthy punch of the pili, the chewy cushion beginning to crumble, and the delicate blanket of sugar unfolding with every bite. “If you stop, it’ll burn. If you don’t finish, it won’t taste good.” repeats in my head. I heave on.
Today, my eighteen-year-old, slightly meatier arms are tossing melcocha, a taffy-like Ecuadorian delicacy, off a wooden peg on the wall—a sign in my host-family that Christmas is approaching. My host-mother repeats, “¡Rapidito! ¡Está cayendo!”, “Quickly! It’s falling!” It takes me a moment to discern the familiarity, but she sounds remarkably similar to Mama.
It’s been half a decade since her passing, but I can still hear Mama gently yelling at me to keep stirring. My host-mother and I laugh as I get melcocha stuck in my hair and I remember how much I used to loathe being told to stir that stubborn pili. Eleven years later, I recognize that, maybe, I wouldn’t be who and where I am without that tough little nut. Pili and melcocha may be simple winter sweets to others, but to me they’re reminders of who I am: my identity, how I’ve gotten to where I am, and who has gotten me here.
Tagalog, English, and Spanish have been like mothers, raising me in their respective fashions. With the older generations of my family, Tagalog filled my first seventeen years. The ritualistic pili making taught me from an early age about persistence and commitment. Hearing the same words here in Ecuador years after having heard Mama’s battering reminds me of how much I’ve evolved. Today, living in a country whose language is not my own and being part of a family with which I share no blood, I’m thankful for Mama’s persistent, “Don’t give up!” banter. After English, Spanish has become my third mother. “¡Está cayendo!” isn’t far from Mama’s exclamations, but there are parts of this culture that fell short back home. “¡Saluda a tu vecino!” twenty times a day has become more than just, “Greet your neighbor!” but to respecting any passersby as someone you know—a friend you just haven’t met yet. The absence of language fluency has its wisdom to impart, too. With a group of used-to-be strangers taking me into their home as a real daughter, colleagues at my apprenticeship keeping patient when I can't answer their English grammar questions, and everyday locals helping me navigate the bus system, I’m learning to convey gratitude through other channels when gracias simply doesn’t cut it.
Just four months ago, I could only speak so admirably about English and Tagalog. However, my time here in Ecuador has been an odyssey brimful of learning, challenges, vulnerability, and human connection—the most integral parts of growing. I can unhesitatingly place Spanish on same shelf as the languages I grew up with, because I know I haven’t stopped.