The Power of Paella

My first few years of elementary education took place at the neighborhood school down

With my science teacher, preparing to launch the rocket I built

the street. The adults (i.e., my teachers and parents) quickly discovered that I was smart; after a few weeks in first grade, I was promoted to second grade. I eventually ended up testing into a local classical school (a selective enrollment in Chicago with an advanced liberal arts curriculum that includes languages, the arts and science). There were two major differences between my old school and my new school: At my old school, the majority of the student body was black, and most of us were from low income households. At my new school, there was a mix of ethnicities present in the student , but I was in the minority when it came to socioeconomic status. I wore hand-me-downs, and my family relied on free food programs to help our food stamps last longer.

One year at school, my class had an international program, and one of the highlights was a class cookbook based on potluck dishes contributed by each student. I don’t recall if countries were assigned, but I think we got to pick our own dish. The dish that my parents chose for me was paella. Now I have to pause here to tell you a little more about my parents’ backgrounds. My father grew up on the west side of Chicago, born just after his family migrated from North Carolina, where many of them had worked in agriculture (either on personal farms or for tobacco companies) or as domestic workers. My mother was born and raised in rural Arkansas (as evidenced by her stories about what it’s like to wring a chicken’s neck). Neither of my parents had a college degree at the time (my mother later earned her associate’s degree at the age of 61), and neither of them had ever traveled outside of the country. Yet, they had decided on this rich and complex dish as my contribution to the class potluck.

Paella de marisco (Photo credit: Manuel Martin Vicente)

Paella is a Spanish rice dish that is choc-full of meat, including seafood. It is an expensive dish to make – especially for a family living off of food stamps and meager disability benefits. But my parents made a sacrifice and cooked this dish. This experience obviously met the objective of teaching me about Spanish culture. However, I learned a more valuable and longer-lasting lesson by witnessing my parents’ demonstration of sacrificial love. In fact, Southern-rooted poor people living in the city and cooking paella wasn’t just a demonstration of sacrificial love. It was a defiant laugh in the face of Oppression and his siblings Hopelessness and Shame.

Sometimes, we had to heat water on the stove for bathing because we’d missed a bill payment; I was never up to date on the latest fashion trends because the DAV (thrift store) didn’t really carry Sassoon; we rarely purchased anything at the grocery store that wasn’t packaged in the tell-tale white-with-black-block-lettering generic box or bag. We were “when we get in this store, don’t ask me for nothin” poor. I often hear people who grew up poor say things like, “We were poor, but I never knew it.” Well, we were too poor for my parents to be able to cover up the hard truth. But that didn’t stop them from exposing us to other cultures and life outside of the ‘hood. And for that, I am forever grateful.

Paella is the national dish of Spain, but it also had a transformative impact on my life.