Imagine a plane ride from San Juan, Puerto Rico to New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport in a 1960s December night. The passengers are a mixed bag of travelers, including American tourists and business men, along Puerto Ricans returning to the city, or arriving for the very first time in search of a new life. Such flight is the premise to the tragic-comedy, “La Guagua Aérea” (Air Bus), a 1993 movie based on the book of the same title, written by Luis Rafael Sánchez, dubbed “A Flight of Hope.”
The movie depicts what could have been one of the many flights transporting Puerto Ricans to the city during the Great Migration. Planes substituted steamships, and were starting to become akin to buses (guaguas) for many moving back and forth between the island and the city. Sanchez uses humor to explore the Puerto Rican experience as members of a nation “on the move,” including sentiments of hope mixed with nostalgia for the land and the people left behind, as well as the anxiety of the unknown.
My favorite scene is that of the cabin food service. Unlike today’s airplane experiences, cabin service back then included food. “Dinner” in this fictitious flight was a ham and cheese sandwich, with a pickle hidden inside. For most of the Puerto Rican passengers in the flight, this was the first encounter with such meal. While the American passengers enjoy the sandwich, Puerto Ricans start exploring the meal in front of them. Some take the sandwich apart, smelling the pickle with gestures of puzzlement and disgust.
“Baja la caja. Baja la caja!” (take the box down) – A wife murmurs to her husband seating beside her, also struggling to comprehend the cold sandwich. He hesitates, but complies. He takes out a cardboard box from the overhead compartment. Inside – a caldero (cauldron) with arroz con gandules, topped with a plantain leaf (or “apastela’o“). The caldero traveled from the island’s countryside to satisfy a nostalgic craving of a family member already living in the city. Unfortunately for him, the caldero is shared among the passengers – happily accepted by Puerto Ricans, while being effusively rejected by the American passengers.
The generous act is contagious – starting an impromptu potluck celebration, as another passenger reveals a fiambrera filled with piononos (a sweet and savory dish, made from long slice of sweet plantain rolled with ground beef and fried).
Snapshot from food scene in La Guagua Aerea (Source: YouTube)
The feast grows. As it is Christmas, someone takes out a bottle of coquito, served alongside arroz con dulce (coconut rice pudding)- a classic dessert combination of the holiday season. The sharing of food quickly transitions to a full party. To the dismal of the American passengers (and the Puerto Ricans who wished to be like them), the meal is further “seasoned” with a parranda, as passengers unpack a variety of traditional instruments from their carry on bags.
December and January are prime travel times for those of us to travel back “home” to celebrate the holidays with family and loved ones. Many of our bags will return full of our favorite foods. Most likely, I’ll bring back my beloved mallorcas, and a few culantro leaves from my in-laws’ backyard. I might try to sneak in some pitorro, and frozen home-made sofrito. Granted, these transports are becoming more difficult thanks to TSA rules, but we all give it a try!
Snapshot from La Guagua Aerea (Source: YouTube), an overflowing bag, including bags of rice and cooking equipment
In the end, times are not that different from those depicted in La Guagua Aerea. These days, Puerto Ricans are moving to the States in comparable or larger numbers as those seen in the Great Migration. The plane continues to serve as a guagua (bus), with many continuing to move back and forth, depending on life and personal circumstances. While the prime destination has changed from New York to a variety of other places (such as Orlando, FL), the sentiment might still be the same. The trek across the ocean continues to be a “flight of hope”
The movie is available in YouTube: See this link to enjoy.