The Puerto Rican arepa is a humble disk of fried dough made to sop up sauce from arroz con habichuelas or carne bif (rice and beans and canned corned beef, respectively, for the uninitiated). Nearly all Latin American countries have their own specialty they call an “arepa,” but rarely are they the same thing, and never are they my grandmother’s. Venezuelan arepas are crispy and stuffed with black beans and avocado. Colombian arepas are soft and corn-based, piled with cheese and ground beef. You’re not going to find a Puerto Rican “areperia” pop up in your local gentrifying neighborhood, but my mother and I did find them in the American Southwest, deep in the Navajo Nation.
When I was young, it was a treat to watch Grandma’s flour-dusted fingers manipulate loose grains into soft dough. Back then it was just her and I after school, waiting for my mom to return home after work to our dim first-floor NYC apartment. If I was lucky, she would rip off a tiny piece for me to play with, quickly—there were only ever a few magical minutes to roll it between my palms into the shapes of animals before it dried into a misshapen rock, too hard to fry. She was the first to teach me that food could be fun.
When Grandma’s health deteriorated, my mother tried reproducing her recipe without success. The ingredients are simple: flour, water, salt, lard. But the proportions must be exactly right, the dough kneaded just enough. Grandma would watch as we mixed ingredients, an arthritic fist curled at her chin, trying to force herself to remember what she couldn’t quite grasp anymore. More than the recipe, Grandma had developed a language with the dough which could not be prescribed. After one hundred years, blindness and dementia had stolen this from her, and she hadn’t been able to cook for years. It felt like we’d lost a piece of her forever.
During our road trip across Arizona in May 2016, my mother and I noticed families setting up roadside tents behind hand-painted signs for “Fry Bread.” As we drove north through Phoenix and Sedona, we kept seeing signs for fry bread and were immediately intrigued, as big fans of both fried food and bread, and we were delighted by the concept of combining them into one delicious, artery-clogging bite. Upon Googling, it looked like a kind of tortilla, which was not as appetizing as its name sounded. Once we arrived in the gorgeous, humbling expanse of Monument Valley, right over the border of Arizona and Utah and into Navajo Nation, we had our first chance to try it at The View Restaurant inside the tribal park. The restaurant and attached hotel is the only building planted at the end of a dirt road, on the ledge of interior park trails that lead up to red sand and rock formations. At sunset, the giant rust-colored Mitten formations glowed orange against a light blue sky.
That night I set the oily, airy bread on my tongue and instantly recognized the taste. Salty and buttery, but not overwhelming. The bread was filled with air pockets and scorched edges, but that was what made it perfectly recognizable: Grandma’s arepa. It reinvigorated us after a long day of travel with dust in our nose and on our skin. We were excited again, back in Grandma’s kitchen.
As we traveled throughout Navajo Nation, we discovered other familiarities: a “green chile chicken stew” that we expected to be a spicy Mexican-style dish but that tasted exactly like Grandma’s asopao. We found SPAM breakfast burritos; Grandma liked to make us SPAM and egg on a roll. We were intrigued, finding Grandma’s flavors in the “Wild West,” as she would call it. How could Puerto Ricans and the Diné share such similar culinary profiles?
The answer is complicated. The history of the fry bread for the Navajo is a dark and painful one. The bread was created in the mid-1800s after the governor of Arizona exiled the Navajo from their land, forcing a death march (the “Long Walk”) to an internment camp at Fort Sumner. The land there was so inhospitable to farming that the United States government was forced to provide them with rations, including cheap flour and lard. When the Diné had little else, they had the caloric fry bread as a means of sustenance and survival.
In Puerto Rico, a territory of the United States since 1898, citizens have endured a long history of colonization. Many farms and sugar plantations were owned by wealthy outsiders, and after World War II, the price of sugar dropped drastically, causing the island’s economy to shift from agriculture to industrial production. By 2015, 85% of the food Puerto Ricans ate was imported—largely by the United States. American canned meat products, originally part of the rations military officers would receive during war, were affordable for families struggling to make ends meet. In lean times, a bag of flour and a box of lard could feed a growing family.
During our trip across the desert, my mother and I learned many native tribes have their own version of fry bread, but I can only confirm the Navajo’s as a close match for Grandma’s arepa. For both cultures, the bread represents a comfort food tied to memories of economic hardship and colonialism. Generations survived on these staples, and today, we continue to make them out of tradition and perhaps in some ways, in tribute to those who have come before us.
Grandma passed away nearly one year after our trip to Arizona. Over Christmas, her last Nochebuena with us, we made arepas for her once more. Inspired by tasting the real thing again in the Navajo Nation, those arepas we made were the closest we’d come in a long time to perfecting them. After years of not being able to taste much, Grandma smiled and told us we finally got it right.
Finding her simple but obscure bread in the desert was proof for me that nothing is ever truly lost to us. Not even our loved ones. They continue in our memories, adventures, and traditions. I will always carry with me that thrill of discovery we felt upon finding something we never expected to experience again. For future generations, I hope to pass on the love and strength of our ancestors through Grandma’s arepa, for which my passion was reignited after finding it in the Southwest.