When I was 28, I moved to Guatemala, my parents’ homeland, for six months. At the time, I was rooted in Boston: I had been renting a room in a first-floor apartment in Jamaica Plain and working at a local school. But something stronger pulled me to get on a plane. It was the lure of the blank page, the longing to fill in so many of the details to stories I’d grown up hearing about my mother’s life in Guatemala City and my father’s childhood spent on a farm in Escuintla. I was ready.
Armed with fresh notebooks, a laptop, and even a printer my mother and I had managed to stuff in my suitcase, I left Massachusetts — where I was born and raised — and traveled home, or, at least, to the mythical motherland.
But, it wouldn’t take long for me to miss the familiar. I was embracing life in Guatemala — taking Spanish classes, shopping for produce in the mercado, even hiking a volcano. But one morning while walking down a narrow, cracked sidewalk in the city of Quetzaltenango, the honeymoon period of my visit already in the rearview mirror, I caught a flash of silver out of the corner of my eye. It wasn’t uncommon for people to create mini-stores or tiendas in front of their houses. Underneath the blazing sun, American snack items — Rice Krispies Treats, Snickers, Baked Lays — glistened in neat rows, practically calling my name. What is it about the familiar that makes us so nostalgic? The crinkly packaging alone transported me back to the United States. I bought one of each snack item, beaming as I stepped back onto the avenida.
I imagine this is what it must have felt like for my mother to shop at Hi-Lo Foods supermarket when she and my father lived in Jamaica Plain in the 1970s. Later, all of us — my mother, grandmother, tías, cousins, and I would frequent Hi-Lo often, treating it like an excursion, a focal point to the day. We’d walk down Sheridan Street and along the sidewalk on Centre Street, past the Cuban restaurant and billiards salon, and trek into “el Hi-Lo.”
In my memory, the inside of the store was even brighter than the mural on the outside — lights shining on pyramids of fruit on display, endless boxes of limes, mangos, plantains, and shelves crammed with bags of Maseca and frijoles—black, brown, and white. The names on the cans and packages were in Spanish. Even the advertisements had Latinos in them—a smiling family of four each gripping green coconuts or an abuela laughing with her granddaughter as she pinches ground pepita into a silver pot on the stove. I remember people speaking Spanish, and the squeak of the grocery cart as I followed my grandmother down each aisle, hoping for a candy bar at the checkout line. She always said yes.
My mother tells me that Hi-Lo was the place where she felt she could be herself, an American inside America. It was also a place where she’d bump into neighbors, and strike up conversations with other Latina women. One day, in Hi-Lo, she met a woman named Esperanza who, like her, was from Guatemala. Esperanza owned a three-decker across the street and had also purchased a ranch-style house in Framingham. She invited my family over to her house one Sunday for a Guatemalan lunch of steaming caldo de gallina and fresh tortillas — likely using ingredients she’d purchased at Hi-Lo. The adults reminisced while the kids ran around in the backyard. Soon my parents met with a realtor. They bought a house around the corner.
Still, every weekend we’d climb into my parents’ maroon station wagon and make our way back to Jamaica Plain. Inevitably, each visit included a stop at Hi-Lo. Sometimes my sisters and I would wait in the car with Dad while Mom shopped. She loved life in the United States, and all it afforded her and her family. Even though Hi-Lo closed in 2011 (it’s been replaced with a Whole Foods), I still cling to the memories of my mother coming back to the car with the cart full to the rim, the yucca and tortillas and panza and cilantro and Sazón and arroz and queso fresco — some savory, some sweet, and all of them small anchors to home.
Jennifer De Leon is the author of “Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From” and “White Space: Essays on Culture, Race, and Writing.” Her next novel, “Borderless,” will be released in 2023. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Tell your story. Email your 650-word essay on a relationship to email@example.com. Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.