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Episode 48: El embajador del Mofongo (The Mofongo Ambassador)

By Duolingo on Thu 30 January 2020

A young Puerto Rican man takes a dish from his homeland and creates a global food sensation. But when Hurricane Maria hits, he finds a new way of using food to help the island he loves.

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Transcript

Martina: Every time Manolo López entered his house as a child, he would instantly become hungry, even if he had just eaten.

Manolo: El aroma de la comida de mi mamá, Margarita, me cautivaba inmediatamente. Ese aroma venía de las verduras que mis abuelos tenían en el patio de mi casa y que mi mamá usaba para cocinar.

Martina: Manolo grew up in the Puerto Rican countryside in a coastal town called Aguada. There, he was just one of many who loved his mother's cooking.

Manolo: Ella era como una celebridad local que usaba su comida para crear una comunidad. Sus platos eran tan populares que ella empezó a dar clases en el garaje de la casa y a enseñarles a otras madres a cocinar.

Martina: Most of her signature dishes are iconic to the island of Puerto Rico. They include local ingredients like plantains or plátanos.

Manolo: El plátano verde es parte de nuestra dieta diaria. Entre plátano frito, sopas y otras comidas, había un plato que era el preferido de todos y que se preparaba en ocasiones especiales: el mofongo.

Martina: Mofongo is a treasured dish on the island and in the Puerto Rican diaspora. It's prepared with fried green plantains and Manolo's mother has a special way of making it.

Manolo: Mi mamá mezclaba el plátano con ajo, chicharrones y especias en un pilón de madera.

Martina: Un pilón is a wooden mortar and pestle commonly found in Puerto Rico and throughout the Caribbean. And chicharrones are fried pork belly or pork rinds.

Manolo: Luego, ella decoraba el plato con una salsa especial y un poco de cilantro. Ese plato era como un trofeo de olimpiadas.

Martina: Bienvenidos and welcome to the Duolingo Spanish Podcast—I'm Martina Castro. Every episode, we bring you fascinating true stories, to help you improve your Spanish listening, and gain new perspectives on the world.

The storyteller will be using intermediate Spanish and I'll be chiming in for context in English. If you miss something, you can always skip back and listen again, and we also offer full transcripts at podcast.duolingo.com.

A quick note about the Puerto Rican accent. Often the R's are pronounced like L's, as in "velduras" instead of "verduras" or "velde" instead of "verde".

Martina: One thing Manolo knew from a young age was that he was going to be an entrepreneur. His first business idea involved selling shaved ice or piraguas.

Manolo: Un día, yo le pregunté a mi papá si me podía hacer un carrito de piraguas para llevar algo diferente al próximo bake sale de la escuela. Mi papá me construyó mi propio carrito y era justo como yo me lo imaginaba, blanco y con una insignia que decía: Piraguas Cemí de Manolo.

Martina: Just as Manolo suspected, offering something different at the school bake sale was a complete success.

Manolo: En nuestro primer día vendimos como setenta piraguas. En ese momento, comenzó mi amor por la comida y los negocios.

Martina: Even though Manolo was ambitious from a young age, it didn't mean that he was exactly the most responsible. He had a hard time focusing and following directions.

Manolo: A los catorce años yo era muy rebelde. Mis notas en la escuela no eran buenas y tampoco iba mucho a clases. Mi mamá sabía que tenía que hacer algo diferente conmigo. Fue entonces cuando ella me inscribió en unas clases de cocina en la capital, San Juan. Esa ciudad estaba a tres horas de mi casa.

Martina: His mother chose cooking classes for him because that was her specialty. Naturally, she thought cooking could help Manolo express his own creativity.

Manolo: Nosotros nos levantábamos todos los fines de semana a las cinco de la mañana para llegar a San Juan a las ocho.

Martina: And, as his mother suspected, this experience captivated Manolo, and cultivated his love for cooking.

Manolo: Ese tiempo en la cocina marcó mi vida. Fue un tiempo de alegría, donde aprendí la importancia de trabajar en equipo y a valorarme a mí mismo.

Martina: Like many other Puerto Ricans on the island, as Manolo grew older he contemplated leaving Puerto Rico to pursue a career and better economic opportunities.

Manolo: Yo siempre quise estudiar diseño. Mi hermana mayor estudió en Parsons, en la ciudad de Nueva York. Desde pequeño, Manhattan me había cautivado.

Martina: So, at age 24, Manolo set off for New York City to study design. Since it's just three hours away by plane, this is a common move for young Puerto Ricans.

Manolo: Pero no fue fácil. Yo sobrevivía comiendo pizza de un dólar y vivía en un cuarto pequeño y demasiado caro.

Martina: Pretty quickly, Manolo started to miss, or extrañar, the comforts of home. He started to understand the true meaning of being boricua—that's a term rooted in the island's indigenous history that Puerto Ricans use to self identify.

Manolo: Nunca me sentí boricua hasta que me fui a Nueva York. Yo empecé a extrañar a mi país… Entonces, comencé a escuchar salsa y a cocinar comidas típicas para poder sentirme en casa, como el mofongo y el arroz con gandules.

Martina: Gandules are a legume. As Manolo reconnected with the music and food from back home, he was inspired to study the history of Puerto Rico as well. He already knew that Puerto Rico was originally populated by the Taíno tribe before it was colonized by the Spanish in 1493. Four hundred years later, it became a colony of the United States.

Manolo: Nosotros, los habitantes de la isla, a veces nos sentimos un poco inferiores y tenemos un complejo colonial. Creemos que la vida en los Estados Unidos es mejor que la vida en Puerto Rico. Cuando yo me di cuenta de eso, empecé a leer libros sobre la verdadera historia de Puerto Rico.

Martina: To do this, Manolo had to dive deep into the history of Puerto Rican social and political movements, both on the island and in New York City.

Manolo: Yo encontré mi identidad con la historia de los Young Lords. Soy boricua y me siento orgulloso de serlo.

Martina: Manolo felt orgulloso, or proud, of his origins thanks in part to his discovery of the Young Lords. That's a civil and human rights organization founded by Puerto Ricans in Chicago back in 1968.

Later they were active in New York where they fought for equal rights of Puerto Ricans and other colonized peoples.

Manolo: Aprender sobre los Young Lords y mi cultura me llevó a hacer cenas clandestinas para conectarme con mi comunidad. A través de la comida yo quería recrear el ambiente familiar del Caribe y reconstruir el calor humano que tanto extrañaba.

Martina: The menu Manolo created for these underground dinners was diverse, representing the breadth of Puerto Rican cuisine. Much of the traditional food is a reflection of the island's colonial history, rich in layers and methods of cooking from Spain and across Africa.

Manolo: Cuando no teníamos dinero para regresar a la isla durante la Navidad, preparábamos sancochos, pasteles y mofongo.

Martina: Sancocho is a classic Puerto Rican soup. Pasteles are like tamales, they contain a mix of root vegetables, plantains and pork wrapped in plantain leaves. Both are typically served during the holidays.

Manolo: Nosotros simplemente queríamos sentirnos como en casa.

Martina: At first, the dinners were small. This was before social media, so people found out about them by phone and word of mouth. Eventually, they began to grow, laying the foundation for what Manolo would transform into a business.

Manolo: Empecé a buscar un lugar para comenzar un negocio en la ciudad de Nueva York. Yo quería ofrecerle la experiencia que estábamos creando a un público más grande.

Martina: He looked at venues all over the city in a quest to find the right home for his eatery. Eventually, he found a weekly outdoor food fair in Brooklyn called Smorgasburg.

Manolo: Yo no encontré ni un solo latino en Smorgasburg. Entonces los contacté para trabajar ahí.

Martina: They asked him for a sample of his food.

Manolo: Y yo hice lo que los boricuas hacemos en estas situaciones: llamé a mi mamá. Yo le compré un boleto de avión y ella vino a ayudarme.

Martina: Manolo went above and beyond to prepare his presentation. He saw it as an opportunity to integrate his passion for design with his cooking, so he created a logo and mood boards to compliment his signature dish: mofongo.

Manolo: Yo sabía cómo hacer mofongo, pero tenía que vender un mofongo perfecto, como el que solo mi mamá sabía hacer. Entonces, ella lo hizo y le vendí el producto a Smorgasburg. Me escogieron entre cientos de candidatos y empecé mi negocio: Mofon-GO.

Martina: It was an auspicious start of something that would get much bigger than Manolo could have imagined at the time.

Manolo: Era una manera de cocinar y darles trabajo a mis amigos. No estábamos vendiendo Mofongo y ya. Estábamos representando nuestra cultura y creando una experiencia.

Martina: Even though it was small, Mofon-GO became popular in New York City. Manolo caught the attention of major publications like the New York Times and high-profile celebrities like Spike Lee.

Manolo: Todo iba bien y teníamos éxito. Nosotros éramos los únicos latinos en un mercado que recibía a treinta mil personas diarias. Mofon-GO recibía más de cuatrocientas órdenes por día. Eso era suficiente para nosotros.

Martina: For Manolo, the best part of this experience was getting to build community by sharing food… Just like his mother did back home.

Manolo: Cuando los latinos veían nuestra tienda se sentían orgullosos. Ahí, el sonido de los pilones machacando comida al tono de la música de Celia Cruz se daba a conocer en la Gran Manzana. Nosotros estábamos triunfando hasta que llegó el día en el que todo cambió para siempre… cuando el huracán María pasó por Puerto Rico.

Martina: On September 20, 2017, the island of Puerto Rico suffered its worst natural disaster since 1928: Hurricane María.

Manolo: Era un huracán categoría 4 que dejó a la isla sin luz y sin comunicación. Para cada boricua en la diáspora fue traumatizante no poder hablar con sus familiares. Los boricuas estábamos de luto.

Martina: Luto means mourning, or grieving. Like many other Puerto Ricans in the diaspora, Manolo tracked the progress of the hurricane incessantly on social media. He looked up friends and family to see who was posting about their status.

Manolo: Yo pasé días sin dormir. Quería saber algo de mi familia, de mi mamá.

Martina: He saw devastating photographs and understood almost immediately that this would have a much bigger effect on the island than anyone could have ever imagined.

Manolo: Yo sabía que, de una forma u otra, tenía que hacer algo. Yo siempre estaba viendo la televisión, buscando información en mi computadora o leyendo los mensajes de texto de mis amigos en la diáspora.

Martina: On the News, Manolo saw the complete destruction of homes and rapid flooding. He heard about the death of thousands of Puerto Ricans and feared for his family. He was desperate to hear news of them.

Manolo: Nunca habíamos visto algo así. Estaba claro que íbamos a tener que unirnos más que nunca para reconstruir el país.

Martina: The scope of this event led Manolo to question his life's path. His mind went quickly to how he could play a part in the revival of his island.

Manolo: Me di cuenta de algo: en realidad, yo no estaba vendiendo comida, yo estaba compartiendo la cultura de mi país. Yo sabía que, si ese era mi propósito en la vida, tenía que hacer algo para ayudar a la isla a recuperarse de esta tragedia.

Martina: Days after and still in distress, Manolo did his best to get back to work.

Manolo: Durante esos primeros días, yo no pude comunicarme con mi familia y me sentía triste. Hice una presentación sobre mi negocio que ya tenía planeada, pero, al final, decidí hablar con el corazón. Le dije al público que quería encontrar la forma de llegar a la isla para ayudar.

Martina: Luckily someone in the audience told Manolo that he could help him get on a humanitarian flight to the island. But to make that happen, Manolo would have to make some fast and drastic decisions.

Manolo: Ese mismo día, yo decidí cerrar mi negocio y dejarlo todo atrás para irme a la isla a cocinar para la gente que no tenía comida.

Martina: It took Manolo a few days to shut down his business in New York City.

Manolo: Terminé los contratos y vendí mis equipos. Junto con mis empleados, que también eran mis amigos, nos fuimos a la isla en un vuelo humanitario para trabajar en esta nueva misión. No sabíamos si íbamos a volver a Nueva York.

Martina: When Manolo and his former employees arrived in Puerto Rico, they were shocked by what they found.

Manolo: Nosotros vimos condiciones apocalípticas. Edificios desaparecidos, casas sin techo y calles completamente vacías. Yo sentí el dolor de un pueblo afectado. Estaba claro que todo iba a ser muchísimo más difícil de lo que yo pensaba.

Martina: Manolo's first stop was to check in on his family.

Manolo: Mi mamá y mi familia estaban bien físicamente, pero no mentalmente. Ver a mi familia me hizo sentir mejor, pero sabía que había muchísimo trabajo por hacer. Junto con la comunidad, nos organizamos para distribuir provisiones y comida.

Martina: The plan was for Manolo and his friends to travel throughout the island and feed as many people as possible. They'd have to improvise as they went along.

Manolo: Era muy difícil planificar todo. Sin embargo, todos queríamos ayudar, así que nos organizamos y formamos brigadas.

Martina: Eventually Manolo's group included Puerto Ricans from the diaspora, the island, and international aid workers. They combined food they brought from the mainland with what they could gather from less-affected parts of the island.

Manolo: Entre chefs, doctores y voluntarios, formábamos brigadas para alimentar a la gente en los pueblos donde no había acceso a comida.

Martina: Manolo quickly noticed that they would need more resources. So he hatched an even more ambitious plan.

Manolo: Yo recordé las cenas puertorriqueñas que organizaba en Nueva York, pero, esta vez, pensé que podía hacerlas en diferentes países.

Martina: The money he raised would go to the island's small restaurants, many of which remained without power, so that they could keep feeding people.

Manolo: Yo fui a México, Chile, Miami y Nueva York para recolectar dinero para Puerto Rico.

Martina: With the help of friends, philanthropists, and industry professionals, Manolo's idea worked. After nine months of fundraising, his international dinners raised money for seventeen restaurants in Puerto Rico. They used it to make meals for communities without resources on the island.

Manolo: Le dimos dinero a cada negocio para preparar platos de granos, verduras y proteínas. También les dimos botellas de agua a las personas del lugar.

Martina: At this point, Manolo was tired but also energized by the desire to continue helping his people.

Manolo: Yo me quedé en Puerto Rico por trece meses trabajando en ese programa. Era mi deber como puertorriqueño. Las personas tenían que sentirse queridas y vistas. Ese era nuestro objetivo.

Martina: Over a year after the hurricane hit, conditions in Puerto Rico were still far from normal. Many Puerto Ricans continued living without electricity or rooftops on their homes. So Manolo knew he'd have to expand his work.

Manolo: Para poder seguir progresando teníamos que llevar nuestro mensaje a otros países. Nosotros teníamos que seguir hablando de lo que estaba pasando en la isla para mantener el tema vivo.

Martina: Manolo decided he would become an international spokesman for Puerto Rican culture and cuisine. His new business would combine his cooking with talks about Puerto Rico.

Manolo: Mi objetivo es demostrar que aún quedan cosas por resolver en la isla. Muchas personas perdieron sus casas y siguen sin electricidad.

Martina: Everything would center on two icons of Puerto Rican cuisine and history: the plantain and mofongo.

Manolo: Yo sé que podemos construir un nuevo Puerto Rico. Para hacerlo, la gente tiene que seguir viajando para allá y trabajando con la economía local. Al final, somos nosotros quienes mantenemos nuestra cultura viva. Si no defendemos el aspecto local, la gente se va y perderemos la esencia boricua.

Martina: Manolo López is a chef and entrepreneur who lives in Puerto Rico but can be seen across the world giving talks and sharing food from his homeland.

This story was produced by Gabriela Luz Sierra, based in Los Angeles, California.

We'd love to know what you thought of this episode! Send us an email with your feedback at podcast@duolingo.com. And if you liked this story, please share it! You can find the audio and a transcript of each episode at podcast.duolingo.com. You can also subscribe at Apple Podcasts or your favorite listening app, so you never miss an episode.

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The Duolingo Spanish podcast is produced by Duolingo and Adonde Media. I'm the executive producer, Martina Castro. Gracias por escuchar.

Credits

This episode includes recordings from tombenedict under the Creative Commons Attribution License.

This episode was produced by Duolingo and Adonde Media.

Producer: Gabriela Luz Sierra
Narrator & Protagonist: Manolo López
Script Editor: Catalina May
Mixed by: Jeanne Montalvo
Sound Design & Mastering Engineer: Jeanne Montalvo