On the top floor of the Bronx Museum of the Arts, the party was just winding down. People were laughing and clearing up tables, saying goodbye with strong hugs and kisses on the cheek.
In the middle of it all, moving at a million miles an hour, was Debbie Quinones, the founder of the International Coquito Festival, which has just finished its preliminary rounds.
Right away, she asked, “Do you know what coquito really IS?” A sort of Puerto Rican eggnog, a Christmas drink.
Debbie Quinones explained the complex heritage behind the drink, which she describes as “imperialism, really. The ingredients are not native to Puerto Rico.” Fortunately, this is a story of triumph over imperialism, and keeping your culture alive in a new place.”
She described the lineage from which the recipe descends, onward from a European drink called porcette to eggnog to coquito. The recipe and holiday tradition was brought over from Europe along with the spices and rum needed to make the drink.
Traditionally, the drink is made with rum, evaporated as well as condensed milk, nutmeg, cinnamon, sometimes egg yolk, vanilla, and different forms of coconut—milk and meat. There is also a blend of other spices usually specific to the family. There has been a new upswing in flavored coquito, like chocolate or pistachio.
Although these are the main ingredients, “Every family has their own special way of making it.”
Debbie Quinones explained that in each family, there is one person who makes the coquito and holds the recipe. She tells us if we have any Puerto Rican friends, to ask who the coquito maker is and then ask for some.
“They’re gonna be like ‘Woah, you know about that?!’ and then reach under the kitchen sink or out the window and pour you a glass.” We ask if she is the coquito maker in her family; she is not. It was a friend of their family, who passed away.
That is why Quinones started the International Coquito Festival. She wanted to honor this family friend, and to keep access to coquito in her circle. Originally just a gathering in her kitchen in El Barrio, it became a contest for the best coquito that Quinones says has become about pride. She did not expect it to snowball like this, but it has become a celebration of heritage and skill. Some of the contestants have even become professional coquito makers. It is an opportunity to be proud to be Puerto Rican, to be proud of not only national but familial heritage, and to celebrate holiday traditions that keep a culture alive in many different places.
In 2001, Debbie started the Coquito Contest in her house so people could get access to coquito. “The contest represents an opportunity to celebrate pride.”
Indeed, there was a large feeling of both pride and community that filled the room at the Bronx Museum. Vendors and customers enjoyed tasting the different coquito recipes and celebrating the Puerto Rican culture. This event allowed the people of the community to purchase coquito for the holiday season. Coquito was able to bring these people of the community together. According to Debbie, this drink “represents the resiliency of the community.”
–Lisbeth Brosnan and Katie Russo