September 23, 2022 by The Citron Review
by Naihobe González
We call it diablito. Little devil. It comes in a can, wrapped in white paper, with a red dancing devil logo. Now that I’m in Mexico City, in a meandering search for a color and warmth I’ve always felt were snatched from me, I can only buy diablito in specialty markets that sell Venezuelan food to homesick immigrants—not ones like me, coming from America with a blue passport, who get to be called expats, but those escaping a dictatorship yet needing a visa that’s increasingly hard to get. At Mercado Medellín, where I went, versions manufactured in both the U.S. and Venezuela were available for sale. The packaging was indistinguishable at first glance, with the same font and logo, except one read DEVILED HAM and the other DIABLITOS, two phrases that are interchangeable yet convey very different meanings to me.
I grew up in Venezuela eating diablito inside arepas, its salty, fatty umaminess the perfect counter to that white corn canvas. Given its prevalence in Venezuelans’ diet for almost 150 years, it feels as autochthonous to us as the arepa itself, despite the wrapping carrying the Anglo name of its inventor in bold black letters. Underwood, a Brit who got rich selling the nonperishable pink stuff to American settlers during the Manifest Destiny period and later to the Union troops during the Civil War. Shortly after, it arrived on Venezuela’s warm shores, spreading faster than dengue fever. At first it was advertised as a delicacy, alongside Russian caviar, but later, perhaps carried by a wave of democracy, it became for everyone.
Slum or country club kid, you ate diablito. It wasn’t until I was older—until I had crossed the Caribbean and become an American—that I realized diablito was just canned meat, that its memorable name derived from its origins as “deviled ham.” It was a little embarrassing, not just because of my years of ignorance or because it turned out this, too, was not really ours to claim. After all, we are the ones who came up with the jingle “there’s no better way to eat ham.” No, what bothered me most was that in America, diablito was now considered a second-tier processed food product. It had too much sodium and fat even for gringos. We found it at Kroger or Food Depot—it’s not sold at Whole Foods, not that we could’ve afforded to shop there then—on a top shelf I could hardly reach, and I’d wonder aloud if we should eat something better, whatever that meant. Those were years of badly disguised embarrassment as an immigrant kid, when I wanted to be truly American and my mother would remind me that I wasn’t.
“The devil knows more because he’s old than because he’s the devil,” she used to say to me when I thought I knew better than her.
Back at the market in Mexico City, in my new life as a not-immigrant-but-expat—as a Venezuelan-American abroad, or as I joked to an inquiring Mexican acquaintance, a veneco-gringa—the saleslady looked at me impatiently. She held the American and Venezuelan cans of diablito in each hand, waiting for me to make a decision.
“So which one do you want?”
“What’s the difference?”
“Some people prefer to buy the American version. It costs forty pesos more.”
This seemed arbitrary and faintly colonialist, or some other such word, yet another example of how what’s American is intrinsically valued more, even by us. But perhaps there was a valid reason. I asked for one can of each and took them home for a taste test. Over the years, I turned my gringo husband into a diablito convert, apologetically at first, unapologetically after, so I thought I had a second qualified tester at hand. Together we’d decide which one was best. I made arepas and brought both cans to the table. We pulled on the tabs and observed the top layer of congealed fat in both. I scraped it off. We cut two arepas open, letting out the steam, and spread them generously with the pink pastes. And we took a bite of each.
“Tastes the same to me,” Daniel said, still chewing.
But he could never be as discerning as me, who had grown up navigating two countries. The devil was in the details. I closed my eyes, the way I might during a blind wine tasting. Could the terroir of the factory where the ham was deviled and canned affect the flavor? Did it really matter whether its origins were in different territories, one called Aragua, the other Texas? I thought there must be a difference I could detect, even if slight, a lot like how I can seem either American or Venezuelan depending on the context, but if you know how to look closely you can tell I am neither—and yet both. A magic trick. But I couldn’t find any difference. Each one reminded me of a time and place I wish could be deviled and preserved, but instead are long gone. Or maybe they’re not. Maybe they’re all inside of me, absorbed into my own pink guts.
Naihobe Gonzalez is a Venezuelan-American writer currently based in Mexico City and Atlanta. Her stories and essays have appeared in The Believer, Catapult, The Offing, [PANK], Waxwing, and elsewhere. She is an alumna of VONA and the Tin House Summer Workshop and has received fellowships from Writing by Writers, the Writers Grotto, and the Kearny Street Workshop. Currently, she is working on a novel and a collection of short stories. She holds a Ph.D. in economics from Columbia University and conducts education policy research when she’s not writing or hanging out with her partner and dog.