Café con leche, mi amor

Where I come from, not far from here but a world away, getting a good cup of coffee, just the way I want it, takes under two seconds.

It’s a simple ask in Puerto Rico: Café con leche, por favor, and boom – I’ve got a perfect cup of espresso-infused hot milk with a light touch, not a gallon of watered-down coffee nor the glorious richness of two shots of straight espresso in a tiny cup, a pocillo, which rattles my disposition.

Here, even an English-language monolingual tongue rolls out “caffé macchiato” with supreme self-confidence as the barista juggles multiple variations of cappuccinos, including the wicked hot latte made with skim milk and a thick drizzle of caramel swirled into a happy face.

But say “café con leche,” and one hits a culinary border reinforced by the Starbucks marketing armada that has people speaking in tongues they do not understand – but not in the one tongue spoken most frequently in the U.S., after English.

In this caffeinated Tower of Babel we call Hampden and Hampshire counties, there are 80,000 Puerto Ricans plus Dominicans and others from the Caribbean, and 500+ restaurants, coffee shops and cafés, many with fancy espresso makers with shiny silver spigots to steam milk into a hot frothiness of soothing pleasure that tickles your upper lip.

But except for a few Caribbean restaurants in Hampden County, some of us still must spell out exactly how we want our coffee – and it’s not spelled c-a-f-e c-o-n l-e-c-h-e because that just brings blank looks.

Why isn’t café con leche among the myriad of other options? Fun fact: Some of the best coffee in the world is grown and roasted in Puerto Rico. We probably wouldn’t raise a fuss if all we had to choose from here was Folger’s or Maxwell House; then we’d all be in the same predicament: a long way from a good cup of coffee.

But coffee comes in hundreds of varieties, from all over the world, from cat-poop coffee (look it up) of Indonesia to the myth of Juan Valdés from Colombia. Not to mention French roast and French vanilla coffee, which recall that country’s empire in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean, rather than the origins of the coffee or the vanilla, in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. A horrifying history to mull over a cup of joe.

Americans spend about $20 a week on prepared coffee. It’s a $30 billion industry in the United States.

And yet, a simple thing is out of reach. Café con leche is just hot milk with one shot or half a shot of espresso. In a regular-sized cup. But when you ask for it, what comes back is a cappuccino instead – and in a ginormous cup.

But it’s not only that café con leche is missing from the menu. Puerto Rican coffee, of which there are more than two dozen varieties, is not even on the radar in any of the Hampshire County markets.
This indifference is more than a slight to a people who, like every immigrant group, endure pejorative stereotypes promulgated by individual bigots and careless mass media. It’s pretty tiring – a good café con leche would go a long way.

It’s also a lost opportunity for local merchants to sell something that’s good, and that most of about 80,000 people want to buy, if not many thousands of others.

With the exception of the Paulo Freire School of Social Justice in Holyoke, our history is not taught for more than a few days of the year, usually during Hispanic Heritage Month. It’s not even an actual month; it’s half of September and half of October. You say one month, I say four lousy weeks, let’s call the whole thing off. News coverage about our country is scarce and mostly comes from the newswires, written by people who are not Puerto Rican nor have a deep understanding of our country. Our language is represented by one line in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 1991 Terminator 2: Judgment Day: “No problemo, baby.”

The correct word is problema, and actually, it is a problema, baby, that Pioneer Valley coffee shops don’t offer café con leche and markets don’t sell Café Altura nor Café Crema or Café del Patio or Café Rico or Café Bello or Café Yaucono nor any one of the other brands. It’s a problema because we are a big and ever-growing community, and not selling our products is another way of keeping us outside the mainstream. And it’s depriving everyone of a really great cup of coffee.

Listen to the Vaya con Muñoz segment on The Bill Newman Show on Wednesdays 9:30 am on WHMP 1400 AM. 

This opinion column appeared originally in The Daily Hampshire Gazette.