When I moved to Portland to attend the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies, I assumed I’d find little here that reminded me of home. The arepas de choclo, the Bad Bunny blasting in the streets, the yellow jerseys on soccer game days: I felt sure that I was leaving behind these cultural touchstones of my Colombian-American heritage in New York City.

Yet early one September morning, I found myself watching Niky Watler preparing the day’s first batch of 78 arepas at his restaurant, Maiz. Only four months earlier, Niky and his wife, Martha Leonard, had opened Portland’s only Colombian restaurant, in the Woodfords Corner neighborhood. I studied Niky as he incorporated the masa, a kind of corn flour, into the salt and water, massaging the dough with both hands. It’s a process I’ve learned more than a handful of times, on a much smaller scale, while visiting family in Bogotá, Colombia, and yet I still can’t get it quite right. Niky uses a cookie cutter to form perfectly circular arepas that bear little resemblance to the lumpy fingerprint-imprinted arepas my cousin used to make me as soon as he got home from school.

I went to Maiz nearly every day in September as part of an ongoing documentary project for Salt. Around this time, food writer Andrew Ross also visited Maiz and wrote up his Sept. 29 Dine Out Maine review of Martha’s and Niky’s place: “Maiz offers arepas that captivate (and frustrate).” His review got me thinking about a trend in food reviews that I’ve noticed, and that’s bothered me. Too often, reviewers seem to be evaluating the food without either understanding, or at least exploring in the review, the context and significance of the cultural space in which it’s being served. For example, the review of Maiz overlooks almost entirely the restaurant’s function as a community space for Portland’s Colombians. By providing none of this context, the cultural significance and – effectively – reason for being are diminished, if not dismissed.

I’m Colombian by way of my mother, who immigrated to the U.S. as a young adult. She died when I was an infant, so I grew up not only without my biological mother, but also with little connection to her culture. Everything I know about “being Colombian” I’ve learned from community: extended family back in Bogotá, Latinx classmates in college, Colombians in the bars where I hang out in Queens. But I don’t think my story is rare. Through time and circumstance, as children of immigrants we lose connections to our histories. To know that history lives on in others, but you’ve been cast out, is confusing and lonely. I need the community at Maiz because it preserves and passes on knowledge, taste, stories and music that are my heritage.

In a city where less than 4 percent of the population identifies as Hispanic, Maiz is but one small space where Colombians’ sense of belonging is valued. We can speak in Spanish if we want to, as all the front staff are bilingual. We hear a mix of Latin pop, reguetón and salsa music playing on the speakers: groups like La-33 and Grupo Gale whose music pours out of kitchen radios across Colombia.

I know I’m not the only one who’s found a cultural home in Maiz. Every Portland Colombian I know, I’ve met at Maiz. I’ve even met Colombians who drive in from more than an hour outside of Portland just to go to a Friday night dance party at Maiz. We like to stay awhile, to talk with the owners and staff, to talk with each other. We’ll also drop in just to say hi, or leave a box of chocolates with Martha for her birthday. It’s our space: familiar, comfortable and Colombian.


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