The lunch bell rings. I run to the cubby with my name on it and yank out a purple Hello Kitty lunchbox. Outside the classroom I sit crossed-legged on the cool, dusty tiled-floor, ready to eat. My friends also sit down, making a circle, each with their lunch boxes in front of them. Rhythmic sounds of swings, bouncing basketballs, and high-pitched laughter fills the background of that awaited lunch period. I watch each of my friends unzip their lunch boxes and absentmindedly take out its content. Out of the Pikachu one comes a Doritos bag and a Capri Sun. From the Scooby Doo one, a can of sausages and a Tampico orange nectar, and from my purple Hello Kitty lunchbox comes a small, plastic container with Gallo Pinto.
This was the usual picture of my first grade lunch period. It was a straightforward affair: thirty minutes, a lunch box and food to eat. But for my six-year-old self, who wore old school penny loafers, calf-high socks and two overly tight ponytails, it was more than that.
I hear chip bags bursting open and straws ripped off juice boxes. Chatter travels around the circle with offers to trade Goldfish Crackers for Fritos. I unclasp the four sides of my plastic box and look down at the little mountain of rice and beans staring back at me. For a moment I feel irritated. I resent the food that I, and everyone in Nicaragua, loves. I just want to dip my fingers inside a Dorito bag and stain them with that bright, orange cheese like the girl with the Pikachu lunch box and like the girl sitting next to me; I want to lick my fingers after eating a bag of Cheetos. As delicious as it is, scooping my Gallo Pinto with that little plastic spoon makes me feel like a little girl while everyone else looks so grown up. I think of my mom telling me to microwave my lunch for a minute or two, but I don’t want to leave the circle, not for a minute. I don’t want to miss anything. I will eat my Gallo Pinto lukewarm if that means I stay and do not miss out. It is hard enough not being able to participate in the exchanges. No one ever asks for a spoonful of my Gallo Pinto. My Gallo Pinto and I were never made fun of, but my first grade mind tortured me because it was not Lays, Doritos, or Oreos I carried in my lunchbox.
Another day, another lunch. I take out the plastic container and begin to eat. Sitting on the floor and without a stable surface, I balance the container awkwardly in my small hands. With each messy spoonful I lead to my mouth, a couple of beans roll down my white, buttoned shirt. By the time I finish, rices and beans surround me on the floor and I long, more than ever, the simple chip bag or a sausage can.
One day, I told my mother that I did not want Gallo Pinto for lunch at school. She questioned me and tried to change my mind, but I was adamant that for my next lunch I wanted to open my Hello Kitty lunchbox, look inside, and see anything but a plastic container with Gallo Pinto.
It is lunchtime again and we all routinely sit, crossed-legged with our lunch boxes at the ready. I unzip mine, look down inside and raise both eyebrows. No plastic container. I smile and sigh, eager to analyze the content. I trade, dip, stain, eat and lick like the girls around me. No beans smashed against my skirt, just a little orange cheese under my tiny nails and it feels perfect to me. With time, I began to forget what it was like to eat Gallo Pinto at school. I missed it, but a Dorito bag filled the void of belonging.
Another day we sit around on the cool, tiled-floor, each with our lunch boxes. My pony tails are tighter than usual, making my eyebrows permanently raised. Out of the Hello Kitty lunch bag in front of me comes out a Capri Sun juice and a barbecue Lays bag. I feel content, until I look to my right. Out of the Scooby Doo lunch box comes out a plastic container with her Gallo Pinto inside. I stare at it, almost forgetting where I am. She quickly gets up, holding it as she speeds down the hallway. She comes back, sits back down next to me and opens the container. I can hear it sizzling, I figure she left it more than two minutes in the microwave, and I watch her slowly take a spoonful of her delicious Gallo Pinto into her mouth without dropping a single bean. Not one.