Abuela Mami ships products that make Cuban-Americans feel at home — even in Western Mass.
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NORTHFIELD — Every month, Kristen Gonzalez waits for a delivery from the Florida tropics to arrive on her doorstep in Western Massachusetts. Inside a cardboard box, she finds a care package with magnets shaped like vegetables, cookies, clothespins, and slabs of guava jelly that she bakes into traditional Cuban pastelitos or pastries with white cheese.
These are the tastes and smells of her childhood. They're staples of a Cuban-American household, but not easy to find in Northfield or most of New England. So she pays $20 a month to have them shipped by strangers who feel like family. The parcel is mailed from Miami by a box subscription service she found on Facebook. It's called Abuela Mami, or "Grandmother Mom."
The company, which started in December, has gained a small but devoted following of Cuban-Americans across the country seeking to connect with their heritage. The founders would not release how many boxes they mail out a month, but they said that the number is growing.
To Gonzalez, 35, the box has become less about the food and more about the memories. It's a reminder of growing up in her grandmother's house in Miami, surrounded by family. It's a temporary cure for homesickness and a way of remembering her late father.
"I yearn for that culture, I yearn for the food. It's the little things," Gonzalez says. She's lived in Massachusetts since high school, but, she says, "I still consider Miami my home."
There's the surprise box, which Gonzalez receives and which includes items such as key chains, Badia seasoning, and strawberry-flavored candy. There's also the coffee box, filled only with different kinds of Cuban-style coffee.
"Cuban coffee is essential to my life," Gonzalez says, laughing. "The only thing we have up here is Goya, and that just doesn't cut it."
Some 1,500 miles south in a quiet Miami suburb, brothers Humby and Kiki Valdes talk about business in their mother's kitchen while she prepares Cuban espresso in ceramic cups that feature the Cuban flag. Once a month, the family gathers to pack hundreds of these cardboard boxes by hand in their living room before shipping them around the country. Above a leather couch hangs a portrait of the brothers' aunt as a young woman in a long formal gown at her quinceañera, or 15th birthday celebration.
The Valdeses were inspired to start the business by the matriarchs of their family, Cuban-Americans in Florida who during their childhoods would mail box after box of necessities to relatives still in Cuba under a Communist regime. When the boys got older and moved to New Jersey for work in New York City, Florida relatives would send them Cuban-American treats, too.
"Growing up down here, I never really liked Miami," Humby Valdes, 40, a web developer by trade, says in an interview. "Once I left, I realized most of the stuff that I took for granted, like Cuban crackers or guava, was impossible to find."
Like Gonzalez, the brothers know Cuba from what they learned growing up among Miami's community of exiles. The family business they run is powered by nostalgia both for that world in Miami and for the island that many young Cuban-Americans have never seen themselves.
Their grandmother, Blanca del Rio, who is 90 and has hearing loss in her left ear, wears pearls in the house. She talks of Cuba as if she was there yesterday. Her brother passed away last year in Cuba. She hadn't seen him in 15 years.
Humby and Kiki's mother, Gladys Nancy Ferrer, 64, a pattern maker and technical designer, still makes her own clothing and helps select new products for the boxes. She calls her kids the best thing that ever happened to her. Abuela Mami is a family business, she says, looking at her sons with pride.
"They've wanted to start a business since they were little," Ferrer said in Spanish. "Humby sold lemonade when he was 6 years old. He'd say when he was big he wanted to have people working for him."
She cries when she talks about leaving Cuba at 18, in 1970, after working in labor camps for two years. Her father stayed with the family farm, but a few years later he followed. In the United States, like an army of ants, neighbors hauled in a starter kit for the small household: a couch, a dining set, a coffee table, and some chairs. Once they could afford to buy their own furniture, the starter kit passed on to another group of new arrivals.
In the '70s, their grandfather started a grocery store. He named it after their grandmother: Blanquita Supermarket. Kiki and Humby grew up playing among stacks of groceries. It became a place for people to gather and find products that reminded them of the island they left behind.
For its subscribers, Abuela Mami offers a continuation of that mission, says Humby Valdes.
"People wrote us and said once they saw all those products they kind of tear up," he says. "Because they hadn't seen those products since they were little in their abuelo or abuela's [grandfather or grandmother's] house. It's a very emotional, personal connection."
To Gonzalez, there's a comfort that comes with the smell of Cuban espresso that lingers in her kitchen every morning. She pairs it with the Cuban bread she paid $42 to ship frozen from a Miami bakery. In Miami, you can buy a loaf for $1.25 at the corner store.
But it's worth it, she said. "It's indescribable," Gonzalez says. "It's a very unified culture. Everyone sticks together."
When her box from the Valdeses arrives, Gonzalez likes to open it with her 11-year-old daughter as a way to pass on recipes, traditions, and Cuban culture to the next generation. With President Obama's renewal of relations with Cuba, she'd like to finally go to Cuba one day.
But, as the island nation transitions, Gonzalez's 82-year-old grandmother, who lives in Miami, has asked her to wait.
"She still has some really unsettling feelings about how they left," Gonzalez says, "and the state of the country."
Maybe someday, she says wistfully. Her culture can't be contained in a box forever.