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My grandpa flaunts a gold tooth when he smiles
like I dare you to take something from between my lips.
His tooth shines from the light of the TV screen
when my family watches Telemundo during dinnertime.

While I practice my Spanish,
grandpa unhinges the English from his mouth, at least for a little while.
This is how we both learn how to be Panamanian-American.
Through television and food.

He tells us of our ancestors.
How they raised maize and yucca from the earth,
hands, steeped in indigenous soil.
How as warriors, we drank cacao and water bitter from the gourd,
a medicine sacred to the gods.

Between growing up in Colon, Panama and a tour in the US ARMY,
grandpa is a proud, old soldier, marching through a never-ending war.
At 66, we are scared that another stroke could do what no war ever could
and cut him to the ground.

He drinks
like Aunt Maritsa didn’t lose both her legs to diabetes last year,
like half our neighborhood doesn’t look like the emergency ward of a hospital,
like he hasn’t seen the pictures, how it is impossible to tell the difference
between a road-side bomb victim and someone who forgot to take their insulin.

Grandpa keeps at least two twelve-packs of soda in the fridge at all times.
Sunny Delight, Tampico, Hi-C, a jug of Kool-Aid in the back.
Dr. Pepper lines our refrigerator door like a vest of dynamite.
An arsenal of ways for us to self-detonate.

It is how you learn to drink growing up in a country,
where soda is cheaper than clean water,
where hunger is a canal carved deep into your belly,
where the only options for work are the docks and the ARMY
because your country is as occupied by Coca-Cola as it is by the US military.

When you must march to the call of whatever feeds family first,
you drink whatever fits conveniently in your hands.
I understand, grandpa.

But don’t you know we are still at war with a country that wants us dead?
How us children of Panama and America learn early
to walk softly and carry a big stick
like ARMY assault rifle in one hand,
Coca-Cola bottle in the other.

Our country wasn’t enough,
they are colonizing our bodies, our taste buds.
It isn’t a coincidence that the military and beverage companies call us their target audience,
our black and brown bodies marching to the center of their crosshairs.

At home, a Coca-Cola commercial followed by a US ARMY commercial
flickers across my grandfather’s tooth
and they both shine like the discharge of a gun.

I learned to drink like grandpa,
like Colon, Panama.
I learned to drink like 14 billion dollars
spent on soft drink advertising last year.

The threat of diabetes is as common in our family
as hard work, obedience and discipline.
It is as common as Coca-Cola in our refrigerator.
And we drink until the glass is empty.
We ain’t never learned how to pull maize from the soil
but we did learn to pull the tab of a Coke can.
Don’t it sound like the linchpin of a grenade?
Both explode under pressure.
Ain’t we just time bombs then?

We march until they cut the legs out from under us.
Ain’t we perfect soldiers?

There may be small errors in this transcript.

Original based on a poem by Gabriel Cortez for The Bigger Picture, a project of Youth Speaks. Thumbnail image via Thinkstock.

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