At the Dining Table: Chapter 1 – Creating Community and Unity in new Spaces

In the center of my yellow house in Chicago’s north side sits a large wooden table. My parents bought the table, riddled with holes and cracks, from an Amish farm in Wisconsin. Over the past 26 years of owning it, it has seen family dinners, rushed science projects, conflict, resolution, and divorce. 

Growing up in a Mexican-American household, my parents made sure we understood one thing: unity. In the age of cellphones, reality television, and the internet, it is easy to ignore reality and constantly distract yourself through entertainment. As a result, values have changed family dinners are no longer regularly practiced. This is where my wooden table comes into play. 

Fridays were for everyone, not just family. Fridays were for lessons on politics, religion, culture, and music. Fridays were for bowls of gumbo made by my Uncle Andrew and his brother Chris, two Cajun men that my parents met long before I was born. Over bowls of mussels simmered in a butter, shallot, and white wine sauce, I quietly listened to conversations on how things “used to be.” I even learned about my father’s immigration story, following his father from Mexico City to Chicago at the age of eight. It is around the wooden table that my dad told us of the meals he shared with his family: small bowls of rice and beans, pigeons caught from the street and stuffed, and on special occasions, mole a labor-intensive dish made from a plethora of ingredients like hand-peeled almonds, bread, avocado leaf, and chocolate that were all simmered into a thick sauce. 

My father and I preparing Friday night dinner.

On these Friday nights, my parents exposed me to communitynot one you are born into, but one you establish for yourself. Sitting in the black wooden chairs around our table was the community my mother and father created over time: It was with the help of experiences and long-lasting memories that built this sense of community. They ranged from childhood on the gang-ruled southside, law school in Wisconsin, and having to blend in with the affluent, white neighborhood they tried their best to blend into. 

Essentially, unity came with community. The people sitting at my table with a range of skin colors and accents, as well as coming from diverse places they called “home”, became my aunts and uncles. They would stay by my side as I became old enough to cook the Friday night meals by myself, and held my hand as the meals slowly stopped. 

In the end, some things are not made to last forever. The teenage love my parents once held for each other grew cold and moldy, sitting in the back of the refrigerator waiting to be thrown out. Along with the expiration of their marriage, our Friday nights became but a whisper of the values they instilled in my brothers and me planted into the back of our minds. 

Ultimately, moving away from home is hard. You leave the people that know you best and are forced to find your own community your chosen family. I saw my father do this as he left the house and the wooden table, searching again for a stronger sense of family after walking away from the one he already had. I saw it again as my brothers left for college, searching for a community far away from home and parental guidance. Then I experienced it for myself, packing my bags to cross the pond, where I hoped to find some connection back to my life in Chicago in an unknown city.

Using what I learned around that hole-riddled, brown, wooden table, I created my own community almost 4,000 miles away from home. Over bowls of rice made with seasonings I smuggled in through my luggage, my roommates and I came to love each other, like how my parents loved the neighbors they took in as family. With the right amount of food, I am sure you can find your community, too. 

Start building your community today over some delicious empanadas from Gourmet Empanadas on Avenue B!

By: Allegra Ruiz

Allegra Ruiz is a junior at New York University and she is from Chicago. She studies English and is minoring in Creative Writing. In her free time, she enjoys journaling, reading books and essay collections, and cooking for her roommates. Currently, she lives quietly in New York. 

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