Puerto Rican food adds zest to Taino solstice celebration

Youngstown, Ohio - To the untrained eye, a Puerto Rican pastelillo looks like a close relative of the Mexican chimichanga, but make no mistake — Mexican and Puerto Rican food are not the same.

Nancy Crespo knows. Half Puerto Rican and half Mexican, the Columbus woman gets to have it all — though she confesses liking Puerto Rican food best for its authenticity.

“When you get food from people like this,” she added.

Around Crespo and her family, including her parents, Tony and Maria Crespo of Youngstown, people at the Taino Summer Solstice and Puerto Rican Food Fest munched on arroz con gandules, or red rice with pigeon peas, arroz blanco y habichuelas, or white rice and beans, and pernil, or pork.

The event, at the OCCHA Hall on Shirley Road on Saturday, was paired with the Hispanic social-service agency’s celebration of a new wing on the building. The wing, which used to be an old warehouse, was remodeled with $142,500 that U.S. Rep Tim Ryan of Niles, D-17th, helped secure. It will be a senior and youth center, with 65 children starting a summer program there Monday, said Mary Isa Garayua, OCCHA’s executive director.

It’s all about education, said Ryan, who attended the ribbon-cutting.

“That’s what this room is all about,” he said.

Garayua said the room will be used for after-school tutoring, as well as the summer program, and also for senior citizens’ meetings.

People who attended the celebration were educated, too, about a part of their heritage — the Taino Indians.

They are indigenous to the Carribean, and it’s estimated that half of the Hispanic community in the Youngstown area are Taino, said David Jorge of Austintown. Jorge, a member of the United Confederation of Taino People, participated in a Taino ceremony to honor the summer solstice, led by Miguel Sague of Pittsburgh.

“We want to raise awareness that this is their indigenous soul,” said Sague, who is a Beike, or medicine man, affiliated with the Cane Indigenous Spiritual Circle.

Also participating in the ceremony was Inarunika Pastrana of New York, N.Y., who is the head of a women’s group, Bohio Atabei.

“The first people Christopher Columbus met were our people, because he landed in the Caribbean,” said Sague.

The ceremony included a dance that began outside and continued inside when it began to rain, with Pastrana leading the way.

“Every time you touch the earth, you are giving Mother Earth love,” she told the circle of dancers as they stomped their feet to the beat of Jorge’s drum.

Pastrana also established a chapter of her women’s group at the celebration.

Author: Jeanne Starmack, starmack@vindy.com

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