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Café Negro Julian Riccobon

Barahona, the streets were paved with bones, but we walked them like they was nothing but brick. The church bells were dull. The walls white and pasty, como pastel de tres leche. We had come to witness our family history, me and Papi and Mami and Natalia. We had come to see for ourselves, the place where our bisabuelas had been whipped and chained and raped.

In a way, it was kind of disappointing.

It was not the transformative experience I had been hoping for. The museums were boring. The coffee was bitter. The beaches were brimming with turistas gringos.

Hotel Costa, we slept restless on the foldout bed, Natalia’s socked feet just inches from my face. En Barrio Enriquillo, we wandered from place to place: El Fuerte en Pollo, with the smell of sizzling chicken, and the Shell, somehow just as yellow as the gas station in San Diego.

It reminded me of home, the reek of gasoline.

In the center of town, the roads turned to herringbone, and this was where you could start to sense the history of the place. The weight of it. “Listen,” Natalia whispered, and I did.

Listening back to the sixteenth century, I could practically hear the crack of the whip. Could practically taste the sugarcane, so sweet and sickening. This place used to be a plantation, once, but now it was just a beach.

“Fuck,” Natalia said, and that just about summed it up.

In a coffee shop in the the historic district, the tools of the trade were laid out on display; all sorts of torture devices from the Transatlantic Triangle. They were preserved in glass cases, alongside the forks and knives, as if someone might pick them up and start using them to spoon mangú.

While Mami and Papi ordered coffee, Natalia and I wandered from case to case, speculating about how each one was used.

“Just look at them all,” Natalia said. Exhibit A: the iron bit designed to bridle a man’s mouth, as if he was merely a horse. Exhibit B: the thumbscrews with chomping metal teeth. Exhibit C: the metal collar with bars sticking out in all directions, to prevent the wearer from lying down.

All of it was pervaded by the tang of brewing coffee. Café amargo. Café negro. The tables were decorated with orange napkins and paper cups, each one brimming with skinny little straws. Behind the counter: a Haitian man squeezed mangos through the juicer, as if this too was an instrument of torture. His fingers strained with every twist of the screw. His palms chafed against the metal, but still he kept wringing the fruit.

“Vete, niña,” he said, when he caught me staring, but when the barista’s back was turned, he slipped me a mango peel under the counter. For the rest of the trip, I sucked on the peel, folding it away behind my teeth, while Natalia chattered on about how she wanted to start her own collection of torture devices and maybe we could design some of our own with the rusty nails from the railyard back home. I grinded the peel between my teeth while Mami and Papi sipped their drinks, commenting off-hand that it was too bitter, too black.

“¿Espuma extra?” the barista asked me, when he came around for refills.

In answer, I simply shook my head.


FFO: How can readers support you in your current endeavors?

If you like what you’ve read, then check out my portfolio website or follow me on LinkedIn (Julian Riccobon) Instagram (julianriccobon) or Twitter (@JRiccobon). If you happen to be an agent or editor, looking for more like Café Negro, you know where to find me!

And you can also support Polyphony Lit. This literary magazine for young writers and editors has been my passion project for the past five years, and next year, the magazine will be celebrating its 20th-year anniversary! As the Managing Director, I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to meet many young writers from all over the globe, and I’ve worked with so many amazing kids who I’m certain are going to dominate the literary industry in the coming years. Over the course of 2022-2023, I’ve hosted Zoom calls with kids in Brazil, Bangladesh, Guam, India, Ukraine, and Zimbabwe, among other places (sometimes in the wee hours of the morning, because… time zones) and I’ve listened to them discuss the essentials of crafting and editing poetry. Truly a unique experience!

As a lit mag, we provide personalized feedback to every student who submits, so share the link with any high school students you know who love writing and reading, and consider donating, if our mission appeals to you!

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© Julian Riccobon

Meet the Author

Julian Riccobon

Julian Riccobon

Julian Riccobon (he/him) is a writer, editor, and artist of Italian/Panamanian descent, and the Managing Director of Polyphony Lit, an international literary magazine for teen writers and editors. His work has been published in The Acentos Review, Blue Marble Review, Rumble Fish Quarterly, and F(r)iction Lit, among other places, and his favorite genres to write are contemporary fiction, magical realism, and historical fiction. He is currently drafting a magical realism novel about a bunch of loco neighbors who live together in a rowhouse in San Diego.

Follow him on Twitter: @JRiccobon, Instagram: julianriccobon, and LinkedIn: Julian Riccobon

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