Far From Home, in the Kitchen

Housemates Linto Duarte, 32, and Francisco Santo, 47, fold their laundry at the Wishy Wash in Silver Spring. They share shopping and cooking chores.
Housemates Linto Duarte, 32, and Francisco Santo, 47, fold their laundry at the Wishy Wash in Silver Spring. They share shopping and cooking chores. (By Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)
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By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 12, 2008

Marco Antonio Rosales learned to cook the way many immigrant men do: from a cellphone. Soon after arriving in the Washington area five years ago, the young construction worker found himself on the horn to a mountain town in western Guatemala, burning up calling-card minutes in pursuit of domestic skills he never learned at home.

"I would ask my mother or my wife: 'How do you cook this soup? How do you prepare the beans?' " Rosales said.

The women were amused and delighted to impart some advice remotely, Rosales said, maybe all the more so because it shattered the norms of their machismo society. "In my country, a man would never go into the kitchen and a woman would never go into the field. Here, I was forced to learn."

For many of the single Latino men, or solteros, who come to the United States looking for work, the long trek across borders ends in the most foreign territory of all: the kitchen. For many, life in the Washington area is an all-male existence, from their construction and landscaping jobs in the day to the apartments crowded with fellow laborers at night, with no mother, wife or sister to handle the domestic chores.

"Most of the Latino men come from a culture where they're used to having their wives or companions do everything around the house," said Melba Calderon, site director of the Maryland Multicultural Youth Center in Langley Park. "For new arrivals, it's very difficult. The more assimilated you get to this culture, the more you do shopping and cooking and cleaning."

Now, as construction jobs grow scarce and a recent crackdown by Prince George's County has closed many of the truck-based food vendors that served Latino cooking, more men are having to learn kitchen basics any way they can. They place emergency stove-side calls to women back home, ask for tips from grocery store checkout clerks or simply turn to older hands.

Despite the cultural moat that once lay between Rosales and the frying pan (not to mention the mop and the washing machine), the 39-year-old is now domestically self-reliant. He cooks for himself most evenings, washes his clothes once a week at a nearby laundromat and rotates household cleaning duties with the three Latino workers who share his two-room apartment in Silver Spring.

"Now we all care about the apartment and what we eat," said Rosales, whose kitchen repertoire has expanded from basic frijoles and rice to beef and chicken soups, carne asada (marinated beef) and ceviche (raw seafood soaked in lime juice). "It makes it better to live here."

Rosales has even emerged as a culinary tutor.

"Mostly I learned from Marco Antonio," said Virgilio, a 19-year-old recent arrival from Guatemala who is one of Rosales's roommates. He declined to give his last name. "I work at McDonald's, but I want to eat something besides hamburgers all the time."

According to social workers and activists familiar with the immigrant community, Rosales's cooking-and-cleaning arrangement is not just good for the health, but also gives him and his housemates a better chance of avoiding the loneliness and heavy drinking that plague many of the single workers.

"It's like a little village of men," said Sister Carmen Sota, an outreach worker with Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington. "They create their own support system. And when they realize that they can care for themselves to a certain extent, they do it gracefully."

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