Author Archives: Christina Oti

Spanish Proverb

Subject: Proverb


Informant: I asked my dad, Jose Oti, if he knew any proverbs that were important to him or that he grew up with. He was born in Cuba in the fifties and moved to the United States when he was eleven. When he immigrated to the U.S., he had to escape without the government finding out he and his family were trying to move out for good. Because of this, his parents told him to take his little brother and his little sister and go to the United States alone, and they would come meet them in Miami later. As a result, he was forced to grow up fast, in a sense, and learn not to make mistakes. When I asked him if any proverbs came to mind, he responded,


“There’s a saying in Spanish that translates to ‘it’s better to be alone than in bad company.’”


The phrase is a common saying in the Spanish language in general, but my family got it from Cuba, where their extended family and friends of the family said the saying regularly. He said his parents started saying it to him more often when they had all moved and settled in the U.S. Since he had never spoken English before arriving in the United States, he was held back a few grades in school, and had to work extra hard to become fluent enough in English so that he could do well enough in school and skip a few grades to catch up with the kids that were his age. Therefore, he could definitely not afford to get into significant trouble that would set him back. His parents stressed this to him with the proverb, and whenever they thought he was hanging around with kids from school who might be a bad influence on him, they would repeat in the original Spanish,


“Mejor solo que mal acompnañado(a).”


I’ve heard the proverb many times from my dad before, growing up, but as it is a phrase said as advice or as a scolding, usually from a parent to their child when the child has gotten into trouble, I never really took it to heart or thought about what it actually meant. When I asked my dad where he had first heard it from, he told me, “I learned it from Abuelo and Abuela [or, “dad and mom”] when they thought I might be hanging around with kids who may get me into trouble.”

Five Foot Fish

Subject: Family Legend


Informant: Talitha Barkow


The following dialogue is a story told to me by Talitha about her family and their fishing adventures on an Indiana lake. Talitha said she wasn’t sure if the whole thing was made up, exaggerated, or completely true, but all her family members know the story and bring it up every now and then.


“My dad’s parents lived on a lake in Indiana and took their grandkids fishing all the time. There was one time where they all were out fishing, and they were fishing for pike, which can get pretty big, and bass, which weren’t that big, and my grandfather cast out his line and caught something, but they thought it was the bottom of the lake.


The line started zigzagging back and forth. The fish started pulling the boat across the water. My dad had the net ready when they finally were able to pull it up. They started to struggle, and the fish ripped through the net.


My great grandpa still had it in his hands, so they get it in the boat, and it’s five feet long. They’re scared it’ll get out of the boat, so my grandpa laid down on top of it, but it was pretty difficult to keep it under control because fish are all muscle,

and it bit him.


So, they got this giant fish. They had to go into the city to do something, and when they pulled up to the lake shore, this woman’s standing there, and is like, ‘that’s a big fish,’ and they didn’t have anywhere to put it so they asked her to put it in her freezer and she said yes. It’s really weird, but everyone in Indiana has, like, a giant freezer for some reason. And they came back, but she wasn’t in the house, but the door was unlocked, and they went in the house and got it and walked out. Now the fish is in my grandfather’s basement, and it used to terrify me when I was younger.”


The story is used now for entertainment, but it does mean something to Talitha’s family, as her grandfather kept the fish and mounted it on a wall in his home to remember the fishing trip with his children. The story has also become somewhat of a legend, as on the one hand, it definitely happened because there is physical proof of the massive fish they caught. But on the other hand, Talitha had no idea whether the details of the story were actually factual or just made up to enhance the drama of it all, like her grandfather laying on top of the fish and then the fish turning around and biting him.

Escaping Cuba

Coming from a family of Cuban immigrants, I’ve grown up hearing countless stories from my family members escaping Cuba during Fidel Castro’s dictatorship—usually from my dad, but from others as well. I reached out to my aunt—my dad’s younger sister named Lourdes Oti—who was a baby when she left the country with my dad, José, and her other older brother, Carlos. Before asking her about it, I had never actually heard her version of the story. Because she was too young to remember leaving Cuba and coming to the United States, the following is her version of the story, which she has interpreted and accumulated from other older family members telling the story from their perspectives.


“When we left Cuba, we did it in stages. The communist system was already settling into the general public, and it had built in informants in the neighborhoods and even within families. You had to be very careful who you shared your plans with. You never knew who was a communist.


Part of not letting people know was staging your exit from the island, so it would seem that entire families were not leaving. As the revolution advanced, the government was clamping down on professionals leaving the country. They did not want any doctors, lawyers, dentists leaving the island—professionals would be needed under the new regime. Especially because Dad was one of the top surgeons on the island, we would have to be careful that everything appeared normal, as if we were staying.


Many families sent their children out of the country with a Catholic organization program called Pedro Pan (Peter Pan). It was an option for people to ensure that their children could at least live in the United States, in a free country. Parents would have to put their children on a plane, where they would be met at the airport by priests who would take them to a church, where they would be claimed by family members already living in Miami. Jose and Carlos [my dad and uncle, her two brothers] had their visas for travel, and were enrolled in this program. Abuela, Abuelo [her parents] and I were left behind in Cuba. The next step was to apply for visas for Abuela and myself. I was a newborn, so there would be no Peter Pan program for me. Abuelo knew someone in the government, and they processed the visas for only Abuela and I. My brothers left, and as you can imagine, it was traumatic for everyone to be separated. A week before Abuela and I were scheduled to leave, Abuelo applied for a Visa, stating that he needed to travel to Jamaica because of family emergency. He left, leaving Abuela and I behind. Now the family was good and scattered.


It’s important to mention that when you left, you left only with the clothes on your back and a box of Cuban cigars you could sell at the airport. They didn’t want you leaving with American money or jewelry you could sell. They really wanted to make sure you couldn’t afford to stay in another country, that you would return with no money. Abuela, who was a master seamstress, made a dress hiding all sorts of valuables in it. In the large covered buttons, which were fashionable at the time, she hid folded $100 bills. In the hem of her dress, there was more money, across the yoke of the dress, a string of pearls that were a family heirloom. She removed the soles from her platform heels, scooping out the thick sole, and hiding her wedding ring and some other jewelry. The day of our exit, I was running a fever, but there was no changing flights or days. An uncle drove us to the airport. Mom went inside to sort out all of the paperwork, leaving me with my uncle. While she was there, the military started pushing people back from the airport, saying only those with visas had a right to be in the airport. My mother would lose track of me and my uncle. When she came out to collect me, my uncle was not where she had left him. Mom broke down and started crying, one thing led to another, she said her baby was missing and some militants looked for me. When they found me, they wanted to arrest my uncle for kidnapping. Once that was sorted, we got on the flight and arrived in Miami to reunite the family and start a new adventure, in a new country, with a new language.”

Pizzelle Recipe

The following is a continuation of the escaping Cuba story. It begins directly after the last story left off; however, I separated the two because in this portion, Lourdes describes a recipe for pizzelles, which she and her family learned shortly after settling in the United States.


“We settled in the suburbs of Chicago in the first years, sometimes in houses that the hospital would supply, or in our own homes. Abuelo, studied for his residency in Chicago, so he already had a position when we arrived. Our house was always full of smells of food. Mom was an excellent cook, and she was eager to teach neighbors about our food and learn about theirs. We had some Italian neighbors once, and at Christmas, they delivered a large box of wafer thin cookies that smelled like anise. They were great, covered in powdered sugar, really crispy, and big, like 4″ across. Mom was hooked, and so were we, she hunted down a pizzelle maker, and she tried a million recipes. Many of them stuck to the iron, which was a nightmare. You would have to heat the appliance up, grease it with butter, try your batter, and if it stuck, unplug it, let it cool, and try to clean the fine filigree plates. Ugh! Was it really worth it? Yup… Once you got a good recipe and a seasoned pizzelle plate, you needed a lot of space, and many hands to make these cookies.


I remember Carly, Mom and I in the house in Plantation, we had to clear off the counters, and two dining tables to have enough space to put the cookies when they came off the iron. The counters were set up with all of the wire cooling racks we had. Mom would pour the batter, close the iron, and if it was too much, it would pour out the sides, too little and you have a deformed cookie. It is always best to have a little more than less. Mom would burn her fingers lifting the cookies, and set them up on a nearby rack. Carly and I would take turns moving them to a rack that was further away so that Mom would always have a nearby rack for the next cookies to land on. The cookies have to cook enough to be crisp or they would get droopy. If that happened, you need to pop them in the oven at 200 degrees to dry out, then take them out and let them cool completely, otherwise they get soggy again.


Once the cookies are completely dry, we would snap off the excess dough leaving a perfectly round cookie and a huge pile of crumbs that are great on ice cream. The cookies are then transferred to a large tupperware box, and each one is sprinkled with powdered sugar. If you make them at Christmas, as we would, you could pick up little tins to pack them in, to give them as gifts. Each batch makes 50 cookies, and you could easily spend hours running around getting them perfect, and cleaning up afterwards. It’s one of my fondest memories, and if you remember, we made them together at Carly’s when you were here for Christmas one year.”

Recipe for Pesto

Recipe for Pesto


The following dialogue is my dad explaining a recipe he has learned over the years for pesto, one of my family’s favorite foods. When they immigrated from Cuba, my family moved into a Chicago neighborhood where they had Italian neighbors they became close with through cooking. My family would cook for and share Cuban recipes with them, and they would do the same with their Italian recipes. My dad, who has loved to cook since a young age, picked up some of his Italian neighbors’ recipes, even though he was about eleven years old when they became neighbors. This is his recipe for pesto today, as it has changed and evolved through the years.




“First, you buy flat Italian parsley, pine nuts, garlic, of course, and olive oil.


Then, you take about a cup of fresh Italian parsley, and you put it in the food processor to chop it all up nicely. And then you chop about two garlic cloves—you peel them and put them into the food processor.


So, you’ve put the Italian parsley and garlic in and chopped it all up, then you take about two tablespoons of pine nuts, and you add that to the garlic and the parsley.


Then you put salt and pepper to taste, and then you put a cup of olive oil, which turns it into a liquid, and then you put about a quarter cup of parmesan cheese—all in the food processor, all of this stuff you just keep adding on—and then it basically becomes a think like liquid paste, and you serve it with pasta.”