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When I was 12 years old, due to financial reasons, I was placed into the public school system. It was a shock to my system and sensibilities and it was at the point, I began to hate going to school. I did not adjust well and that adjustment was not helped by being called Four-eyed Midget, The Snot, and Weirdo by my classmates. Many of them knew my family and knew I had been one of those too-good for their own good society snots. I became outcast and except for a couple of teachers and one of the lunch room ladies, without friends. I walked to school alone and walked home alone; groups of kids passed by me, sometimes knocking my books from my arms, knocking me down, and always calling me names. I’d arrive home and go to my room and alternate cry and rant.
One day, during recess, I had had enough. One of the bigger boys who was taunting me (I see London, I see France. I see Snotty’s underpants) just plucked my last nerve. I looked up at him and challenged him to a fight. He found this most amusing and pushed me down on the ground. I gathered my wits and then launched my small frame full into him, head butting him in his crotch. We both went down rolling, punching, gauging, me biting, scratching. A crowd had gathered cheering him on when he grabbed me and held me up from the ground. I was flailing and sometimes connecting with a good kick. Suddenly, it became silent. Thank God, I said to myself. It is a teacher. I will be expelled and never have to come to this hell hole again.
It was not a teacher. It was Billy Rodriguez. To the bully, this slender boy said, “Son of a whore, put the girl down.” I was thrown down and Billy began to circle the boy. Next thing I knew, the bully was flat with Billy on his chest pounding him. It was a good moment. From that moment, Billy became my protector and his younger sister Therese, my friend as well. Old Southern family meets blended Cuban-Puerto Rican family.
They did more than keep me from a serious beating that day. Billy, standing between me and harm with all the arrogance, honor, and bravery of a true hidalgo, helped out others who were being bullied. Billy and Therese also walked home with me that day to explain what had happened so I would not be punished and so my family would know of the bullying I had been subjected to for several months. The next school year, I was placed back in my old school. That did not keep us from continuing to be friends. That afternoon, they walked home with me. I had friends! We talked, laughed and began a walk of friendship that lasted until Billy was killed by a drunken driver and Therese died of uterine cancer a few years ago.
Billy’s mother had fled Cuba bringing her two small sons to America. His father had been murdered in the bloodbath there. Therese was the daughter of a Puerto Rican widower. it was a happy marriage and a wonderful blending of cultures.
That first Christmas of our friendship, his mother came to call on my family. She brought a large pitcher of a holiday drink: Cocquito. She explained it to us; the ingredients, the tradition of serving it at Christmas, the warning that it was lethal and to be sipped and savored. When I make Ida Ortiz recipe for Cocquito, I honor the memory and lives of these precious people who rescued me and became part of my life.
We became three families blended by friendship, food, tradition, love, and honor. Their pork roast and cocquito have become part of our family celebrations just as their memories have blended in with all the other memories.
I raise my glass of cocquito to the friends who became family and to their memories that bring me joy. I raise my glass to all of you, friends who have become family. Blessings to you all and may you always be blessed with friends who become family.
8 oz. half and half or whole milk
4 oz. cream or half and half
1 (14-ounce) can condensed milk
1 can cream of coconut
1 can coconut milk
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
¼ ground nutmeg
4 – 8 oz.Puerto Rican white rum
Ground cinnamon – dusting
Place all ingredients in a blender and process for 3 minutes at high speed until frothy. Store in a glass container in the refrigerator and serve chilled, dusted with a little cinnamon. NOTE: Use a rubber spatula to get all the cream of coconut and sweetened condensed milk from the cans. The egg yolks are optional. Some versions use the egg, some do not. It seems to vary from family to family.