It may not sound like much, but I decided for mother’s day I’d try to get my mom a nice, milky coffee. I knew it wouldn’t be easy —I’d have to track down coffee, milk and sugar, which would mean tramping all around the city, and it’s not like I have a car. But in our house, it matters — the tradition is older than me.

Café con leche —that first cup of milky coffee in the morning— has always been a big deal in my house. In our house, we call it the féconlechito, and it’s just not a proper start to the day without it. And yeah, we’ll put up with a lot to get it.

But enduring a 3-hour line just to prepare coffee and milk? That sounds borderline obsessive. What’s up with that?

I was doing it for my mom. The tradition comes from her. It goes way back.

My mom had three sisters. Growing up in Ciudad Bolívar my grandmother used to prepare the café con leche every single morning, and sometimes in the afternoon.

Her father wasn’t around much because he worked in another city, so it was a women’s house. The four sisters were raised to be the good housewives–you know, clean, cook, that sort of thing. It was a different time.

Needless to say, I never have seen a 2 kg. can of powdered milk — we might as well be talking about a dodo bird here.

They were poor; they lived a simple life. The youngest sister always had to wear the patched-up hand-me-downs from her older sisters. They knew what it meant to go without. But never the feconlechito: a breakfast without it was unthinkable. They ate it with bollos, bread, empanada, pastelito, even casabe. Grandpa always made sure to bring a can of powdered milk when he was in town.

“It was the big one, the 2 kg. can of powdered milk. I don’t think you know that one,” my mom tells me.

Needless to say, I never have seen a 2 kg. can of powdered milk — we might as well be talking about a dodo bird here. I’ve been looking for the powdered milk in every nearby stores, a cashier even laughed at the question, “ay mijo, don’t you know which country you’re living in?”

When mom was 17 years old she had to spend some months in Caracas for some vocal chord treatment that could be done only in la capital. She stayed at an aunt’s, and even though it was a scary time, in a new city and with new people, “la vieja Elia” made sure to prepare the feconlechito every morning.

That’s how you know it’s family.

Eventually all the four sisters got married. Dinorah and Gisela stayed in Ciudad Bolívar, and Luisa and Nirka (my mom) moved to the new industrial town an hour away: Ciudad Guayana.

All their kids grew up with feconlechitos. I swear, at one point I was eating it with cereal when I was in college. Every time one sister visited another, they prepared it, no matter what time it was. Sometimes right after lunch, at night, it didn’t matter.

Sugar is tricky. It’s not hard to find,, and you do get many different brands to choose from, but they all come from Brazil and look exactly the same. I just pick one at random and hope it doesn’t come with metal shavings.

I finally found coffee for sale in a store that sells bread, mayonnaise and coffee. Seriously, that’s all they sell.

It’s funny how each of my aunts had a little variation of it; the thing only has three ingredients. My mom prepared it a little heavy on coffee, my aunt Chela emphasized the milk, my aunt Dinorah made it sweetest (alas, this isn’t a fairytale: she has diabetes now), and my aunt Luisa made it best. I don’t know if it was the fancy coffee maker or what, but the taste was just right.

Finding coffee isn’t that hard, but you don’t have a lot of options. It would have been way easier if I had any cash, people sell it on the streets from the back of trucks. I finally found coffee for sale in a store that sells bread, mayonnaise and coffee. Seriously, that’s all they sell. They had some arrangement with the store next door, so I could pay with my debit card. There are two brands on offer. I settled for “Venezuela” brand coffee, nothing like the good old “Fama de América” of my childhood, but beggars can’t be choosers. Really, it’s pretty decent.

My aunt Chela died about 14 years ago, breast cancer. She was divorced, and left 3 kids, and with three sisters remaining it was a no-brainer, one kid for each sister. My cousin Yinmi was 17 years old when he moved in with us. I was 10 and my brother 12. It must’ve been scary for him, moving to a new city and getting a new family when your mother just died.

Luckily this new family had feconlechito every morning so he fit right in.

He became our brother. We introduced him to anime and videogames, and he introduced us to sibling teasing and took us cycling through the city. It was awesome. I actually interviewed him here, when Ciudad Bolívar went crazy.

My other aunt, Luisa, died of breast cancer three years ago. She put up one hell of a fight. Now there are two sisters remaining, and the tradition is getting harder and harder to maintain. Communism metastasized too. The workaround is this: they invite each other whenever they have all the ingredients. Once every two months.

As the country falls apart we’re all scrambling to hang on to one last bit of normalcy, and this is ours.

“herma, cuándo vas a venir para que te tomes un feconlechito?” I hear my mom say all the time on the phone.

I hate that. It’s all down to the CLAP bag. That stings.

My Mother’s Day treasure hunt is still going on. I always knew milk would be the toughest part of this. I thought I had a lead: a guy was offering a package on Facebook, he wanted to trade it for some diapers. I offered money instead, but he didn’t answer so I guess I’ll keep looking.

As the country falls apart we’re all scrambling to hang on to one last bit of normalcy, and this is ours.

As of Saturday night, I’m still short: I did get the coffee and some sugar that comes from Brazil, sure, but after asking in at least five stores, the milk proved impossible. They told me that I may find it in San Félix, all the way across town, and the trip could easily take me the whole day on public transport.

I’m still looking. I guess I’ll miss Mother’s Day, but out of all the shortages, one of the ones that stings the most is the shortage of normalcy. I want to feel normal. I want mom to have a taste, a memory of what normal used to feel like. I’m still looking.

6 COMMENTS

  1. You sound like me with my quest for cornflakes, milk, bananas, and sugar. Sometimes I score 2 of 3, sometimes 3 of 4, it’s a rare and joyful day when I hit the jackpot.

    Such is life in the socialist paradise of Venezuela.

  2. My sister-in-law visited her daughters last month near me in South Florida. The daughters (my nieces) and their husbands and young kids overstayed their tourist visas and have their asylum requests in.

    My nieces have only been here about 6 months, and they more or less “grew up” in the shithole of Chavismo, remembering little else. There kids know NOTHING else.

    They’re all working hard, getting by, sharing one small apartment, but man–are they eating good! My wife and I travel from Coral Springs to Miami to visit them, and always bring a feast (in huge coolers!) with us.

    Granted, I usually bring a gringo feast (I’m American, my wife is VZ), but they ain’t complaining one bit. And there was still gallons of Ponche Crema and plenty of pan de jamon this past navidad. (I myself am not a fan; don’t shoot me.)

    Anyway…

    On our last visit, right before my sister-in-law was returning to Caracas, I brought over coolers of lobsters for cooking there, plus oysters to make oysters Rockefeller, plus shrimp, crabs scallops and mussels. I wanted to give her/them an authentic New England clam bake.

    My sister-in-law had been in tears before over the bounty, but this meal put her over the edge.

    I can’t imagine what life is like when all you want to do…and can’t…is just make a fucking cup of coffee with milk and sugar.

  3. I’m living in Spain and the women of Venezuela made into the news this morning, Tele cinco noticias, I so was proud. They said “a couple of hundred” women protests yesterday on mother’s day in Caracas! Yeah mate that’s right, ,”Hundreds” … I don’t about you guys but I can clearly see these huge amounts of people overthrowing this dictatorship any day now. The will of the people is so obvious!!!!

  4. The other day I was reading an article in Prodavinci, about the new “communaly run” Mansión Bakery and how a poor old guy was told he could not buy bread because they dont sell it anymore, they “distribute” it to “communes” so you have to “organize”… or have a card from some Chavista outfit.

    The old man was basically of the opinion of “no joda”; he was pissed at the fact that with the very few bolivares he had, he could not do something as normal and common as to go to a bakery and buy a loaf of bread. Instead he had to listen to an idiot telling him rancid ideological bullshit.

  5. Thank you, Carlos, for one more of your well-written personal observations of everyday Venezuelan life/hardships. For the foreseeable future, your search will continue being an act of fe.

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