My tia Charo makes the best rum cake in the world. The best! We’re not even Caribbean! Pero it’s ok, Charo’s rum cake will soak into the softest tissues of your mouth in delicious, sweet crumbles. You’re left waving your plate at her for another slice, just a sliver, a little bigger! She also has a gift for mouth-watering flan. I don’t even like flan, but I’ll eat hers! She’ll be cross with me if I don’t mention that she’s a wizard of hot sauces too, but that’s a different story.

“La Napalera” by Xirenita, photo by Elena Aurora

The women in my latina family who have crossed back to the spirit realm met death prematurely. The electric jolts of assimilation shaving off years of their lives since their migrations from Peru. When I was little, the older women died, and I didn’t think much of it. But when my Abuela Ymelda died suddenly in 2012, I was shook. Two generations of my family were now lost, and I realized it was up to me to remember them. My living relatives held so much survival knowledge! I decided to go to my tia Charo, and ask her to teach me to bake her rum cake and flan. Cuz you know, if I’m gonna take down capitalism’s systemic oppressions, I’m gonna need cake.

She agreed. To the baking anyways, I’m not sure how she feels about capitalism.

I went to Charo’s house, eager to learn.  She welcomed me with chicken and rice; I was vegetarian at the time, so I couldn’t eat it. However as a child of a migrant family, I craved her cooking instantly as I passed the open kitchen window, smells of chicken stimulating flashbacks of tender flesh teasing my now drooling tongue.

We talked for a bit and caught up. I told her that I loved her cakes, and since I’m the baker of the family, it’s only fitting that I take time to learn her craft. She seemed fine with that. Before you get excited that I’m about to divulge my tia’s secrets behind her cakes, I won’t do that. Those precious teachings are for me and my relatives. But I will tell you about her cups.

We started with Charo’s flan. Flan’s ingredients are so simple: eggs, sugar, vanilla and milk. The magic of flan is baked in how you make it, not what you make it with. I buzzed with excitement as she placed the ingredients in front of me, furiously taking notes like the good recent-college-graduate that I was. I was ready, soaking up every nugget of information she offered. I thought to myself, “damn, I should have brought a recorder!”

She took out an old, coffee-stained mug and dipped it into the sugar.

“You put 1 cup of sugar into the bowl. This is your cup.”

My meticulous note taking came to an immediate halt. A mug as the measuring cup?

“About ½ cup of this, ¼ of that”, she went on through each ingredient, dumping them into the bowl. I sat dumbfounded. The woman use a mug as measuring cup! All these years my family devoured flans and rum cakes aplenty poured from an old mug with the best tool of precision: experience.

I look back on this moment, and I don’t know what I was expecting… Growing up surrounded by wealthy-middle class America, I had learned quickly that a person could call themselves a baker if they had the right bowls and measuring cups. You know the bowls with the little pour spout, or the measuring cups made from brightly colored silicone? And an apron, you can call yourself a baker if you had an apron. But here I was, thinking I could master my tia’s craft with a pen and paper. So I put them down and grabbed a mug.

Now that I live zero waste and follow plenty of minimalists on Instagram, I sometimes let my ego believe that I have all the answers to solve climate change and restore balance in global ecosystems through my mason jars and bulk bin finds. Then I remember baking rum cakes and flan with my tia Charo. She is the ultimate zero waste minimalist, born just after WWII, when America’s stuff production (and oil extraction) boomed the economy. She lived in resource extracted Peru as a young, beautiful, child and young adult in poverty. America had stuff, but she didn’t. So when she moved to America, she stayed resourceful, used only what she needed, and leveraged her good looks. Sometimes I see her resourcefulness when she cooks with simple ingredients, or washes her dishes in cold water to avoid using the water heater.

Left to Right: Elena’s tia Charo, bisabuela Maria, tia Noemi

How many millennial zero waste minimalist’s do you see washing their dishes in cold water? I know I don’t. My tia Charo is 68 years old, still washes her dishes cold, and still dates men for their gifts. Get what you need Tia. I love you.

There are many ways migrant and poor people navigate America, some internalize the messages about what America is and how Americans act by wildin out on Black Friday sales. Others sell upcycled goods at flea markets or fruta along the streets. Most do a mixture of all the above. For my tia Charo, she loves to buy and give gifts (not so zero waste :), and she makes the best rum cake and flan in the world, with a mug as a measuring cup.

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